Bush Says Iraq Could be Like Vietnam After Tet Offensive

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, President Bush conceded that the present situation in Iraq “could be” at a turning point like the Tet Offensive was in Vietnam.

Stephanopoulos asked whether the president agreed with the opinion of columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote in The New York Times today that the situation in Iraq may be equivalent to the Tet offensive in Vietnam almost 40 years ago. “He could be right,” the president said, before adding, “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election.”

This response garnered the headline “Bush Accepts Iraq-Vietnam Comparison” and has many on the Left excited that Bush is finally admitting this is just like Vietnam.

TigerHawk correctly notes the real lesson of Tet:

Tet, however, was not a military disaster for the United States. Quite to the contrary, history has revealed that the Tet offensive was in fact a crushing defeat for the Viet Cong, and effectively required that the Communists conquer the South by invasion from the North, rather than by civil insurgency. The Viet Cong were only able to turn a military disaster into strategic victory by persuading the American media that the United States was mired in stalement. With the domestic political support for the war fading fast, the United States decided to withdraw from Indochina, even though it would take Nixon and Kissinger another four years to accomplish it.

Then again, nobody credible is arguing that the current sectarian mayhem is hiding “a crushing defeat” for our enemies in Iraq. But the other part of the analogy, that the perception of futility is being fed by the panoptic nature of this war, is apt.

Bush was surprisingly good in the interview, at least judging from the text. (Brent Baker at Newbusters has the video of the interview in multiple formats.)

“George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we’d leave,” Bush said. “And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear. Look, here’s how I view it. First of all, al Qaeda is still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying to not only kill American troops, but they’re trying to foment sectarian violence. They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to withdraw.”

Bush said he could not imagine any circumstances under which all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq before the end of his presidency. “You mean every single troop out? No,” he told Stephanopoulos.

Bush also had some tough words for Democrats, saying that pulling troops from Iraq would be the equivalent of surrender. “If we were to leave before the job is done, in my judgment, the al Qaeda would find a safe haven from which to attack. This is exactly what they said,” Bush said. The president insisted he was not disparaging his opponents. “It’s not questioning their patriotism. I think it’s questioning their judgment,” he said.

[…]

Stephanopoulos pointed out that 72 Democrats running for the House had used Bush in their campaign ads.

“Are they saying good things?” Bush joked. “Look, maybe that strategy will work; maybe it won’t work. I’ve always found that when a person goes in to vote, they’re going to want to know what that person’s going to do. What is the plan for a candidate on Iraq? What do they believe?”

This is indeed the choice we face. Whether we should have done things differently at the tactical level–or even gone to war in Iraq in the first place–we are where we are. While elections are and should be a referendum on the past performance of leaders on the ballot, they are also a means of deciding future policy.

It’s quite likely that we’ll wind up with something less than the Middle East equivalent of the shining city on the hill that the neocons were hoping for when we went into Iraq. It may be that we’ve reached a turning point in the sectarian violence from which there is no return and that we’ll ultimately wind up leaving in defeat. But if the president has accurately described the consequences of that outcome–and I believe he has–then we should continue trying to figure out how to win unless and until we are absolutely sure we can’t.

UPDATE: As an aside, when was the last time you saw a Tom Friedman column being debated? The NYT’s decision to put its columnists behind a paid subscriber wall has, as widely predicted, substantially dimished their relevance. In Friedman’s case, at least, that’s truly a shame.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

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  2. Michael says:

    This is indeed the choice we face. Whether we should have done things differently at the tactical level—or even gone to war in Iraq in the first place—we are where we are. While elections are and should be a referendum on the past performance of leaders on the ballot, they are also a means of deciding future policy.(emphasis added)

    Indeed, we have a choice between more of the same actions that you readily admit are not defeating the enemy, and something, anything different.

    As for Al Qaeda, you don’t seriously think they would survive in a Shiite theocracy do you? The only way Al Qaeda could have a save haven is if Iraq is partitioned and the Sunni’s take Anbar. However, I still don’t think the Shiite block would accept or allow an autonomous Anbar. Iraqi Kurdistan is small enough in comparison to allow, they’ve been independent for a long time anyway, but Anbar is still considered part of “mainland” Iraq, they won’t let go easily.

  3. jpe says:

    But the other part of the analogy, that the perception of futility is being fed by the panoptic nature of this war, is apt.

    Contrast this to Gulf I, where the panopticism of the media created the spectacle of America as all-powerful. The problem isn’t media, then, but a war ill-suited for a media age (which isn’t to say this war would be suited for any age)

  4. scout29c says:

    Spam comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    HINT: Add something to the discussion and THEN link to your own blog.

  5. I was extremely disappointed to hear the Reader’s Digest like condensation of President Bush’s comments on Mr. Friedman’s comparisons to Tet on NPR this morning that limited itself to saying, “See, see, Bush admitted Iraq is like Vietnam!”

    I’m curious, now that Bush has, ahem, admitted that Iraq is like Vietnam, will the Mainstream Media also admit that Iraq is like Vietnam? You know, how the insurgents can’t beat us on the battlefield, how we can only lose by giving up the will to fight, how big a role propaganda plays in the “war” now, and just how unbelievably bad things are going to get after we leave. Double plus extra bonus points if it also leads to a further loss of status for America and if the military can be brought down three or four more notches.

  6. In 2004 most GOP candidates were traveling downstream in their “swiftboats” attacking every Democratic candidate that dared to criticize the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. In 2006 you not only can’t find the GOP “swiftboat”, you can’t find a Republican candidate willing to jump in and try to navigate the hapless dingy against the strong current of voter dissatisfaction with the seemingly never ending war.

    It’s important to note that the President’s answer demonstrates his myopic posture regarding the war. While Stephanopoulos was attempting to have the President comment on the growing opposition to the war…asking if voters might be at a tipping point…the President sought to make the point that the terrorists might be attempting to create a Tet Offensive moment. Essentially, his answer virtually ignores the political implications and suggests that he is holding fast to the strategy that connecting the Iraq war to terrorism will produce GOP support. I don’t think voter sentiment is moving in the direction that the President may think it is or hope it will.

    Read more here:

    http://www.thoughttheater.com

  7. Michael says:

    For the aside, Here is an interesting debate (actually just an article, and not so much interesting as it is amusing) about Tom Friedman:
    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2884

  8. spencer says:

    The objective of war is to destroy the enemies will or capacity to continue fighting.

    So on this basis the Tet Offensive was a resounding success. Yes, it cost the North much in the way of manpower and equipment. But it did not diminish their will or ability to continue fighting. In a different perspective it showed that the VC had progressed from a ragtag bunch of guerrillas hiding in the forest and conducting sneak attacks to a regular army capable of conducting full scale warfare.

    On this basis the analysis by people like Tiger hawk is simple wishful rationalizations
    rather then a willingness to face the truth.

    No, it was not a defeat of the US army, but it was not a victory for the US either.

    And you are right, it did play a significant role in the decision of the American electorate to decide that the war was no longer worth the cost, regardless of what the “sunk” cost had been. So Tet by contributing to the American peoples willingness to stop fighting was very successful.

    So how long are we going to continue “staying the course” which essentially means continuing to lose? We clearly are not destroying the insurgents willingness nor capacity to continue fighting. If anything it appears to be improving. If we are not doing that, why continue doing the same thing?