In the Shadow of Ho Chi Minh

President Bush has said many dumb things in defense of his Iraq policy. Citing the Vietnam War as a model, however, is perhaps his most ludicrous yet.

This past week found the president sitting before a bust of the victorious Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, seemingly unaware that the United States lost its war with the Communist-led country. Having long and vehemently denied parallels between the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, he nevertheless admitted now to seeing one.

"Yes," Bush said. "One lesson is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is ... just going to take a long period of time to--for the ideology that is hopeful, and that's an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate.... We'll succeed, unless we quit."

Bush seems not to have noticed that we succeeded in Vietnam precisely because we did quit the military occupation of that nation, permitting an ideology of freedom to overcome one of hate. Bush's rhetoric is frighteningly reminiscent of Richard Nixon's escalation and expansion of the Vietnam War in an attempt to buy an "honorable" exit with the blood of millions of Southeast Asians and thousands of American soldiers. In the end, a decade of bitter fighting did not prevent an ignominious U.S. departure from Saigon.

Now, however, Vietnam is at peace with its neighbors and poses no security threat to the United States. Many of the "boat people" have returned as investors, and successive American presidents have made visits to the second fastest-growing economy in Asia. While Vietnam is still run by its Communist Party, eventually postwar leaders on both sides have accepted that peace is practical.

The lesson of Vietnam is not to keep pouring lives and treasure down a dark and poisonous well, but to patiently use a pragmatic mix of diplomacy and trade with even our ideological competitors.

The United States dropped more bombs on tiny Vietnam than it unloaded on all of Europe in World War II, only hardening Vietnamese nationalist resolve. Hundreds of thousands of troops, massive defoliation of the countryside, "free fire zones," South Vietnamese allies, bombing the harbors ... none of it worked. Yet, never admitting that our blundering military presence fueled the native nationalist militancy we supposedly sought to eradicate, three U.S. presidents--two of them Democratic--lied themselves into believing victory was around some mythical corner.

While difficult for inveterate hawks to admit, the victory for normalcy in Vietnam, celebrated by Bush last week, came about not despite the U.S. withdrawal but because of it.

Iraq and Vietnam are not the same country, yet both have long experience with imperial meddling and fiercely resist it. Bush has said Iraq "is in many ways, religious in nature, and I don't see the parallels" to Vietnam, but that is just another sign that he probably cut most of his history classes at Yale.

He--and apparently the mass media, as well--seems to have forgotten that the United States tried to stoke a religious war in Vietnam by intervening to install a Roman Catholic exile in power in this primarily Buddhist country. The struggle to overthrow that U.S. puppet dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, began with Buddhist monks immolating themselves on the streets of Saigon.

To be sure, there followed a decade of constant talk about bringing democracy to the country we had occupied and a never-ending series of elections and new power arrangements that followed the U.S.-engineered murder of Diem, who like Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi had been deemed by U.S. officials as "the George Washington" of his country. At least Chalabi is still alive to complain, as he did to The New York Times this month, "that the Americans sold us out."

But the final collapse of our puppet regime in Vietnam did not produce the domino effect of other nations surrendering to communism any more than a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will inevitably lead to the spread of terrorism. This is why the wiser voices in the Bush dynastic circle--Daddy Bush's clean-up crew, led by James Baker--are calling for involving Syria and Iran in the effort to stabilize Iraq. Iran is to host a summit with Iraq and other nations in the area, while on Monday Syria and Iraq resumed long-broken diplomatic relations.

The lesson of the Vietnam debacle is that yesterday's enemy is more likely to become today's trading partner if we remove the specter of U.S. imperialism and leave the fate of Iraq to the Iraqis.

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