Last week, President Bush urged us to continue the war in Iraq by comparing our experience there to the war in Vietnam, warning us that withdrawing from Iraq might produce similar results.
"In Cambodia," the president said, "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."
The most rhetorically powerful part is when he invokes the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia. The president suggests that it was the withdrawal of American military power from southeast Asia that produced the killing fields, but he is only able to make that argument by pretending that absolutely nothing happened prior to 1975.
Cambodia declared itself neutral in Vietnam's war, but the North Vietnamese used eastern Cambodia to supply their forces in the south via the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1969, President Richard Nixon began a massive bombing campaign inside Cambodia, and when the Cambodian king protested, Nixon had the CIA remove him in a coup. As was the case in South Vietnam after we arranged a coup there, the new military government had little legitimacy with the Cambodian people, and our bombing only boosted the credibility of the Khmer Rouge. By the time the U.S. Senate stopped the bombing in 1973, we had dropped 540,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia and killed 150,000 to 500,000 civilians.
The Khmer Rouge controlled 60 percent of Cambodia by 1973, and took the rest by 1975.
The president's narrative begins with the victory of the Khmer Rouge. The question his sleight of hand raises is obvious: Should we blame Cambodia's killing fields on our withdrawal, or should we blame our reckless expansion of the war into Cambodia? Why does the president want us to remember the hundreds of thousands the Khmer Rouge killed after we withdrew but not the hundreds of thousands we killed with our bombing?
Cambodia is not so much Iraq as it is Iran. We bombed Cambodia because the communists were using it as a base for transporting troops and supplies into South Vietnam. The president has made essentially the same charges against Iran today, specifically that Iran is training fighters and providing Shiite militias with explosive devices. A few days after his Vietnam speech, Mr. Bush made his most threatening speech to date about Iran, and there are many reports that he plans to bomb Iran before his term expires. Like Cambodia, this would strengthen rather than weaken radical elements in Iran, and it would further destabilize a region that already teeters on the brink of anarchy.
The president is right to predict that conditions in Iraq will likely deteriorate if we reduce our forces there, but the rest of his account is deeply flawed. Those who call for a substantial withdrawal from Iraq would not simply abandon the Middle East. Our choices are between continuing the president's surge and redeploying our forces to Kuwait and Kurdistan, where they could strike into Iraq at a moment's notice. Our Iraqi embassy won't be evacuated by helicopter, and our allies won't be sent to "prison camps."
The civil war that has already begun between Shiites and Sunnis will not produce a safe haven for al Qaeda, especially with our military close at hand. Though that civil war will likely grow worse if we withdraw, there is no organized army like the Khmer Rouge poised to commit genocide. As for boat people, nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees have already fled the violence.
We did not lose in Vietnam because of a half-hearted military effort. We lost in Vietnam because we were defeated politically. We couldn't force the South Vietnamese to believe that their government was a legitimate democracy when it wasn't.
Similarly, we cannot force the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to support a central government if they simply refuse to do so. We cannot force them to compromise, and we will never win militarily while we are losing politically.
The day after Bush's speech, our intelligence agencies reported that the surge has utterly failed to fulfill its stated purpose, which was political reconciliation. The report also finds that Iraqi forces are nowhere near ready to take over from our troops. Furthermore, ethnic cleansing within Iraq has actually accelerated since the surge began, with the number of "internal refugees" more than doubling to 1.1 million.
In Vietnam, we spent a decade in the middle of a civil war between communists and nationalists. We heard the same arguments then as the president makes now about American "credibility" and the dire strategic consequences for America if we withdrew. In the end, we lost a war we did not need to fight, at a cost of 58,000 Americans dead plus 150,000 wounded. Estimates vary, but we killed somewhere between 2 million to 5 million Asians. Last week, Bush argued that we should have stayed longer.
Once again, the American people are being told that we must support an indefinite commitment of troops halfway around the world or face calamity. Once again, we are told that we are on the verge of military victory even though we have no workable plan for a lasting political victory. The American people should carefully consider the question their president has asked them. Are we going to do Vietnam all over again?
Contributing Editor Brian Johnson is working on a novel in New Zealand.