Is Iraq going to be Vietnam all over again—or will there never be another war like that? Given the unflinching support for last year’s bombing of Afghanistan, you might expect the mainstream media to support Bush’s new war and to treat Vietnam comparisons as obsolete and clichéd. But even as many Democrats have shed their party’s traditional anti-war stance, some news outlets have given war critics a chance to revisit the dark side of military history. By now, these flashbacks may have saturated the airwaves just enough to prompt a counterattack by the hawks.
References to the 1960s surfaced on September 3, when New York Times executive editor Howell Raines told PBS, “One of the lessons of Vietnam is that it’s important to ask the questions at the front of the war, not afterwards.” The V-word came up again on September 5, when Democratic leader Tom Daschle noted that Bush had not offered any specifics on the coming war. “You know,” Daschle told the press, “we learned the lessons of secrecy during Vietnam.”
Ten days later, former UN chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter told CNN that the U.S. has not conclusively proved that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons. “I despise the regime in Baghdad,” said Ritter, but “if we’re going to run a [clean] prosecution . . . we can’t distort the facts.” In another CNN interview, Ritter repeated his call for evidence, saying, “This wouldn’t be the first time a president of the United States has lied to the American people to facilitate a war. Think back to . . . Vietnam.”
One of the main talking points about Vietnam is that the war took too long and too many Americans died. Hence, the hawks say, Iraq will never be like Vietnam. According to this argument, the U.S. military proved itself to be invincible during the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo, so there is no chance of heavy casualties or a quagmire in Iraq. As Bill Clinton recently told David Letterman, “You’re looking at a couple of weeks of bombing and then I’d be astonished if this campaign took more than a week.” Clinton’s forays into Kosovo and Bosnia were painless, but his 1993 Somalia intervention was not. When American soldiers die, goes the wisdom, the U.S. public loses its stomach for war.
Anti-Iraq types have drawn other parallels to Vietnam besides death toll and duration, most notably the government’s recurring attempt to gain public support without fully informing the public, i.e., “lying to facilitate a war.” In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson exaggerated the threat that justified a military escalation in Vietnam, and the ensuing “credibility gap” ultimately cost him his job, as The Boston Globe reported recently. The New York Times‘ Frank Rich has also invoked the 1960s, writing, “There is a widening credibility gap between the White House’s marketing of the war and the known facts.” The Washington Post‘s Tom Ricks told NPR last weekend that the Vietnam generation of generals in the Pentagon still vows never to go to war again “without the informed consent of the American public.”
Then there is the political gain factor. Historically, peaceniks don’t get elected president, which is why anti-war Democrats are rare birds this fall. But media outlets are still offering the microphone to any war opponents they can find. On September 18, the Los Angeles Times reported on the lone potential Democratic “peace candidate” for president in 2004, Vermont governor Howard Dean. On September 21, The New York Times reported that the few liberal war opponents in Congress are being marginalized by their own party. (Democrats who are moving toward a pro-war position now include senators John Kerry, John Edwards, and Daschle, as well as Representative Richard Gephardt, all of whom are likely presidential candidates in 2004.)
When politicians abandon the cause, intellectuals take up the slack. Thus, journalist David Halberstam recently appeared on CNN to explain that sending “American kids” to do “occupation duty in Baghdad” is “like punching your hand into a hornet’s nest.” Halberstam went on, “I have a melancholy feeling that these things, whether it’s the Bay of Pigs in Cuba or going into Vietnam, turn out to be, particularly in colonial settings, more difficult than people think. . . . A lot of people in Iraq . . . would like Saddam toppled. But it’s a very different thing . . . if it’s . . . a big, rich, white country which topples it by military force.”
Opposition dried up last week when Bush asked Congress for the authority to attack Iraq. With Democratic leaders promising Bush a modified thumbs-up before the November elections, The Washington Post turned to legal scholars to read the fine print of Bush’s war doctrine. They concluded that Bush had asked for the broadest construction of war powers since the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution—when Congress gave Johnson a rubber stamp to escalate the war in Vietnam.
Of course, 1960s metaphors are bad PR for the left. Maybe that’s why an editorial in last Sunday’s New York Times compared the Bush doctrine to something “the Roman Empire or Napoleon might have produced.”
Last week’s Press Clips (September 18-24, 2002) gave an inaccurate account of the contributions of former New York Times investigations editor Stephen Engelberg, who is now managing editor/enterprise at the Portland Oregonian. As assistant foreign editor of the Times, he directed the 1997 series on drugs and corruption in Mexico that won a Pulitzer for foreign reporting. In September 1997, he became assistant to the managing editor, working as a roving investigative editor. In 2000, Engelberg was named investigations editor, overseeing an independent unit. In that capacity, Engelberg led the 2001 Al Qaeda series that won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism.
The column incorrectly portrayed Engelberg as the sole editor of the Times‘ controversial stories on Wen Ho Lee. In fact, several senior editors were involved in directing the coverage.