What happens when history has already repeated itself as farce and is coming around for another pass? It can't really get more farcical. Today, after years of insisting that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, the Prez spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City and told them that Iraq is like Vietnam.
The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech. So I'm going to limit myself to one argument that has particular significance today. Then as now, people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end.
Setting aside the speciousness of the comparison, who precisely is arguing that if the United States Army would withdraw from Iraq the killing would end? The argument for withdrawal as I understand it is that Iraq is in a civil war and that the American presence ratchets up the emotions on various sides. If the U.S. pulled out, as the argument goes, they'd stop making things worse, but Iraq would still be in the middle of a civil war. Nobody's saying that the different factions would all of a sudden start getting along. There'd still be fighting. There'd still be killing. But the United States Army would no longer be in the middle of it.
As ridiculous as that comparison is, though, I'm more intrigued by the paragraphs that followed it.
The argument that America's presence in Indochina was dangerous had a long pedigree. In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called, "The Quiet American." It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism -- and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
Why do I get the feeling that neither the Prez nor whoever it was writing these words for him ever read The Quiet American? They didn't even bother to rent the Michael Caine/Brandon Fraser movie from 2002. When that film came out, I told anybody who would listen that it portrayed all the reasons why the U.S. shouldn't go into Iraq (I would've written it in my blog, too, if I'd been blogging by then). Obviously, we did go into Iraq, and the film can provide a good primer on what went wrong. But as Frank James of the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog The Swamp points out:
Bush seemed to be seizing on Greene's idea of U.S. naivete on entering the war and trying to turn it around and apply it to those now calling for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
But Greene wrote his book about the way America bumbled into Vietnam, not how it left it.
By reminding people of Greene's book, Bush was inviting listeners to recall the mistakes his administration made in entering and prosecuting the Iraq War. Did he really want to do that?
He goes on to cite some previous comparisons of Alden Pyle to the Prez himself. Karen Tumulty of Time magazine's similarly titled Washington blog, Swampland, points to comments by historian Robert Dallek in yesterday's LA Times:
"It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," [Dallek] said in a telephone interview.
"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.
"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued. "We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It's a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out."
So should we find out whether The Quiet American makes good beach reading?