Thursday, August 23, 2007

 

Not So Widely Remembered

President Bush delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Convention yesterday, following in the footsteps of several presidential candidates for 2008.

Bush, like Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, praised the US Military and Veterans, and noted recent remarkable successes of so-called “surge” operations in Iraq. Bush, like Obama and Clinton, warned against a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. All suggested that more work lays ahead, work that our military can successfully accomplish, as well as companion efforts by US and Iraqi Governments.

Whereas would-be Presidents Obama and Clinton then took the opportunity to slam the nascent Democratic institutions in Iraq, and the beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, President Bush suggested comparison and contrast with our recent national experiences in World War II, Korea, the Gulf War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

The President started with an explicit comparison between the tragic events of 9/11 and the attack which provoked US entry into full combat in WWII. The President specifically evoked the character and intent of our enemy then, in terms unmistakably shared by enemies today:

I want to open today's speech with a story that begins on a sunny morning, when thousands of Americans were murdered in a surprise attack -- and our nation was propelled into a conflict that would take us to every corner of the globe.

The enemy who attacked us despises freedom, and harbors resentment at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people. He fights to establish his rule over an entire region. And over time, he turns to a strategy of suicide attacks destined to create so much carnage that the American people will tire of the violence and give up the fight.

If this story sounds familiar, it is -- except for one thing. The enemy I have just described is not al Qaeda, and the attack is not 9/11, and the empire is not the radical caliphate envisioned by Osama bin Laden. Instead, what I've described is the war machine of Imperial Japan in the 1940s, its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and its attempt to impose its empire throughout East Asia.

The President noted the success of Japanese Democracy after the war, and drew yet another parallel between then and now (emphasis mine):

The lesson from Asia's development is that the heart's desire for liberty will not be denied. Once people even get a small taste of liberty, they're not going to rest until they're free. Today's dynamic and hopeful Asia -- a region that brings us countless benefits -- would not have been possible without America's presence and perseverance. It would not have been possible without the veterans in this hall today. And I thank you for your service. (Applause.)

There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we're fighting today. But one important similarity is at their core they're ideological struggles. The militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision for the proper ordering of humanity. They killed Americans because we stood in the way of their attempt to force their ideology on others. Today, the names and places have changed, but the fundamental character of the struggle has not changed. Like our enemies in the past, the terrorists who wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places seek to spread a political vision of their own -- a harsh plan for life that crushes freedom, tolerance, and dissent.

Like our enemies in the past, they kill Americans because we stand in their way of imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world. This enemy is dangerous; this enemy is determined; and this enemy will be defeated. (Applause.)

President Bush touched on the history of Korea as illustrative of his larger point, and noted that many, Republicans included, felt our efforts in Korea were wasted. And yet, in hindsight, the benefits and accomplishments are clear:

Today, we see the result of a sacrifice of people in this room in the stark contrast of life on the Korean Peninsula. Without Americans' intervention during the war and our willingness to stick with the South Koreans after the war, millions of South Koreans would now be living under a brutal and repressive regime. The Soviets and Chinese communists would have learned the lesson that aggression pays. The world would be facing a more dangerous situation. The world would be less peaceful.

Instead, South Korea is a strong, democratic ally of the United States of America. South Korean troops are serving side-by-side with American forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And America can count on the free people of South Korea to be lasting partners in the ideological struggle we're facing in the beginning of the 21st century. (Applause.)

For those of you who served in Korea, thank you for your sacrifice, and thank you for your service. (Applause.)

It would seem entirely unnecessary to note the comparison in fates between Northern and Southern populations following the United Nations (UN) sponsored “police action” in Korea. But if the President hadn’t extended his historical comparison to Vietnam, I’d guess his critics would have reacted sharply even to his suggestion that US sacrifices in Korea saved South Korea from the horrors inflicted upon the North.

No, most didn’t even note the mention of Korea, seeing a far greater object of their rage when the President invoked Vietnam. Here’s the President’s heresy against anti-war orthodoxy:

In 1972, one antiwar senator put it this way: "What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?" A columnist for The New York Times wrote in a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the communists: "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." A headline on that story, date Phnom Penh, summed up the argument: "Indochina without Americans: For Most a Better Life."

The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.

Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. There's no debate in my mind that the veterans from Vietnam deserve the high praise of the United States of America. (Applause.) Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields."

This is bloody, red meat to many who oppose our efforts in Iraq. Many of the President’s fiercest and most unyielding critics, in fact, are precisely the cohort who learned very simplistic lessons from Vietnam, and count their successful “rebellion against authority” in forcing withdrawal in Vietnam among the great triumphs of their professional and personal lives.

Not so President Bush, like many among the military and conservatives who rebel against the ostrich-like assumptions of Vietnam War critics. A different strain in military and political history, considered heresy by the aforementioned critics, considers Vietnam a moral and political failure, and less a military defeat. We routed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong at Tet, yet Walter Cronkite and other media voices called it a great failure.

We brought North Vietnam to its knees, and many years after the war, military and political leaders admit that the surprising US public turning against the war gave them hope when they had little. As US forces were drawn down in Vietnam, our enemies (and their Cold War sponsors) were emboldened. When US Congress cravenly cut off all funding for South Vietnam, we left an ally stranded and vulnerable, with lasting consequences, in Asia and elsewhere. North Vietnam “established order” in very short order indeed -- to the detriment of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Southeast Asians.

President Bush, like Senators Obama and Clinton, see the outstanding accomplishments of our troops in Iraq. But he also knows the question that burns in most of us: will Washington let our military complete the mission in Iraq, or will politics yet again carry us away from victory, to surrender and defeat?

In Iraq, our troops are taking the fight to the extremists and radicals and murderers all throughout the country. Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year. (Applause.) We're in the fight. Today our troops are carrying out a surge that is helping bring former Sunni insurgents into the fight against the extremists and radicals, into the fight against al Qaeda, into the fight against the enemy that would do us harm. They're clearing out the terrorists out of population centers, they're giving families in liberated Iraqi cities a look at a decent and hopeful life.

Our troops are seeing this progress that is being made on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq? Here's my answer is clear: We'll support our troops, we'll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed. (Applause.)

Our fights in the 20th Century provide powerful lessons and clear direction for what lays ahead in the 21st. Our enemies today remind us of old enemies. The promise of our victories then are the promise that remains unfulfilled for others today:

Today the violent Islamic extremists who fight us in Iraq are as certain of their cause as the Nazis, or the Imperial Japanese, or the Soviet communists were of theirs. They are destined for the same fate. (Applause.)

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries' peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer.

The audience at the VFW was understandably supportive of the President’s thesis. But if not hell, some rhetorically heated near-equivalent broke out over the President’s invocation of Vietnam in the context of his argument.

The NY Times stressed the President’s departure from Orthodoxy:

WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 — The American withdrawal from Vietnam is widely remembered as an ignominious end to a misguided war — but one with few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies.

Now, in urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, President Bush is challenging that historical memory.

In reminding Americans that the pullout in 1975 was followed by years of bloody upheaval in Southeast Asia, Mr. Bush argued in a speech on Wednesday that Vietnam’s lessons provide a reason for persevering in Iraq, rather than for leaving any time soon. Mr. Bush in essence accused his war critics of amnesia over the exodus of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees and the mass killings in Cambodia that upended the lives of millions of people.

President Bush is right on the factual record, according to historians. But many of them also quarreled with his drawing analogies from the causes of that turmoil to predict what might happen in Iraq should the United States withdraw.

Right on facts, apparently, but wrong on interpretation, according to the Times and their expert. Note the way in which reporter Thom Shanker separates himself (and the NYT) via the careful locution, “widely remembered,” without a clear indication whether Shanker intends the statement “but one with few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies,” as part of what is widely remembered (but perhaps incorrectly), or as a statement of fact. I’m guessing I know which side of the rhetorical blade the Times falls on.

The Times goes on to cite a Professor Hendrickson, who admits “catastrophic consequences,” particularly for Cambodia. But Hendrickson immediately discounts the President’s view of causality, echoing modern assertions about how US presence and actions in the Middle East “created Al Qaeda,” in asserting that the earlier US activities in Southeast Asia created the “circumstances of the war” that in turn, led to the Khmer Rouge coming to power.

As to facts, the Times agrees on the scale of horror that occurred:

The record of death and dislocation after the American withdrawal from Vietnam ranks high among the tragedies of the last century, with an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about one-fifth of the population, dying under the rule of Pol Pot, and an estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese and other Indochinese becoming refugees. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese who were sent to prison camps after the war have ranged widely, from 50,000 to more than 400,000, and some accounts have said that tens of thousands perished, a figure that Mr. Bush cited in his speech, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Mr. Bush did not offer a judgment on what, if anything, might have brought victory in Vietnam or whether the war itself was a mistake. Instead, he sought to underscore the dangers of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq.

In contrast, one might add, to what many partisans opposed to our efforts in Iraq were asserting prior to the last couple of weeks: that now was the time to begin withdrawal with little consequence to the US or our interests.

The Times also acknowledges Tet as a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, but adds a little twist, asserting that this “defeat” also “illustrated the vulnerability of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies.”

Yes, we did have a major vulnerability that became very clearly visible to our enemies then: that of public relations. Soviet propagandists planted false stories, media added more and launched a dedicated assault against the war, Hollywood celebrities consorted with our enemies and fueled enemy propaganda efforts, Academic elites fostered protests and even violent acts of provocation against the Government. We were vulnerable, for sure, but more from within than without.

The Times made one other rather startling assertion:

Vietnam today is a unified and stable nation whose Communist government poses little threat to its neighbors and is developing healthy ties with the United States.

Other critics have suggested that the North Vietnamese imposed “order.” Unified, by force. Ordered by force. Gulags and re-education camps are orderly, no doubt. I’ll leave stronger criticism for others.

The Times concludes with some military insight:

Senior American military officers speaking privately also say that the essential elements that brought victory in World War II — a total commitment by the American people and the government, and a staggering economic commitment to rebuild defeated adversaries — do not exist for the Iraq war. The wars in Korea and Vietnam also involved considerable national sacrifice, including tax increases and conscription.

This is at best a misleading argument, based on a fair amount of misrepresentation and revisionist history. Many in the military, Government, and civilian populations – thought a minority -- in WWII wanted us to stay out of Europe, and fight Japan exclusively after Pearl Harbor. The commitment was far from total or uniform. Yes, rebuilding Japan and Germany required a massive economic commitment, but that was more the result of massive bombing and destruction of civilian and government infrastructure, in great contrast to the virtual absence of same in Iraq.

The same critics of our efforts in Iraq, decrying the sacrifice of blood and treasure we’ve made in Iraq, might object to the NY Times inferring that we have not made a “considerable national sacrifice” in Iraq. Seems to me, prior NY Times editorializing would refute that inference as well.

Kathryn Jean Lopez offers a transcription of commentary by Bill Bennett, posted at The Corner, in its entirety, it’s too good to excerpt:

A little from Bennett this morning on the president’s speech yesterday – I'm indenting the bulk of the monologue but I caution that I paraphrase here and there ... didn’t get every word down:
Quoting the president: “Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility — but the terrorists see it differently.”
To Bennett (who was dipping into his Last Best Hope):

here’s the important, the philosophical and moral, launching point for our discussion today folks, based on President Bush’s speech yesterday, and as we do this just remember the Democrats’ main mantra: the President’s policies have isolated us in the world and made America less popular...
a) I think President Bush’s Vietnam analogy lily needed more gilding....
—First, do not put your most important point in the mouth of the terrorists, the enemy.
—Second, don’t make this an arugment, there is no argument.
—There is NO argument that our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price, it carried almost all the price in the world. In December 1974, the Democratic Congress ended military aid to South Vietnam. In April 1975, Saigon fell. Hanoi’s communist regime imprisoned a million Vietnamese without charge in “re-education” camps, where an estimated 165,000 died.
Laos and Cambodia also fell to communists in 1975. Over 40,000 Laotians had been imprisoned in re-education camps.
—Then, Cambodia: 2 million people killed.
—Now, b) or our credibility and our enemies’:
Sirik Matak, our ally in Cambodia, was offered transport out of cambodia in 1975 by our State Department. Here’s what he wrote, one month before he was killed:
“Dear Excellency and Friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people, which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.”
—Here’s what the South Vietnam envoy in DC said: “it is safer to be an ally of the Communists, and it looks like it is fatal to be an ally of the United States.”
—That’s what happened to our allies. Now, c) Here’s how our enemies saw our withdrawal:
—Hafez Assad of Syria told Henry Kissinger in 1975: “You’ve betrayed Vietnam, someday you will sell out Taiwan and we’ll be around when you get tired Israel.” A month later, he invaded Lebanon. Don’t tell me we still aren’t paying that price!
And finally, d) What was the aftermath of U.S. weakness, lack of resolve, and placing of doubt in our allies and conviction in our enemies? I give you Jeane Kirkpatrick: “a dramatic Soviet military buildup, matched by the stagnation of American armed forces, and a dramatic extension of Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, and the Caribbean, matched by a declining American position in all these areas. The U.S. has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends.”

Also at The Corner, Jonah Goldberg thinks the Democrats remain under a “long term curse” due to their fecklessness on Vietnam:

This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer's remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents. Karl Rove made this point in his exit-interview with Gigot, I think, and he's right. Pulling out of Vietnam was an enormous short term victory for the Democrats and a long term curse.

For the historically challenged, Weekly Standard plucks some instructional materials from their archives:

No More Vietnams
This time, let's finish the job.
by David Gelernter
From the May 8, 2006 issue
04/29/2006 12:00:00 AM

Another Vietnam?
What is the "lesson of Vietnam"?
by David Gelernter, for the Editors
From the October 11, 2004 issue
10/02/2004 8:00:00 PM

A Winnable War
The argument against the orthodox history of Vietnam.
by Mackubin Thomas Owens
From the January 15, 2007 issue
01/06/2007 12:00:00 AM

So much for the “widely remembered.”

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