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Bush's Top 10 'Vietnam' Mistakes

By Ivan Eland
March 30, 2006

Editor's Note: George W. Bush likes to toss around the words "democracy," "liberty" and "freedom" as justifications for almost everything he does -- much as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did during the Vietnam War.

But Bush has taken the abuse of language to new Orwellian depths by declaring his commitment to these hallowed concepts even as he asserts that he is the one who decides whether American citizens have any of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In many ways, America's "unalienable" rights have ceased to exist under Bush's theory of his own authority. They have been trumped by Bush's claim of "plenary" -- or unlimited -- powers as Commander in Chief during the War on Terror, a vague conflict likely to last forever.

Like some modern-day monarch, Bush says he is the one who decides if someone is imprisoned without trial, spied on without a court warrant, tortured, even murdered -- all in the name of defending American freedoms against enemies who "hate our freedoms."

Yet even as Bush has pushed the limits of his authority far beyond what presidents of the Vietnam era dared do, there are still lessons that can be learned by reviewing mistakes made then and now, as Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute does in this guest essay:

Because the Bush administration, almost from the start, has eschewed any comparison of Iraq with Vietnam, officials apparently never read the history of the nation’s heretofore worst war and have made the same 10 major mistakes:

  1. Underestimating the enemy. As in Vietnam, the superpower’s potent military has been astounded by the tenacity and competence of a nationalist rebellion attempting to throw a foreign occupier from its soil. For example, the U.S. military, a hierarchical organization, views the Sunni insurgency as disorganized and without a central command structure. Yet the insurgents are using this decentralized structure very effectively and are not threatened by any U.S. decapitation strike to severely wound the rebellion by killing its leaders.
     
  2. Deceiving the American public about how badly the war is going. President Bush continues to talk of victory, and his chief military officer, Gen. Peter Pace, argued that the United States was making “very, very good progress” just two days before the more credible U.S. ambassador to Iraq warned that a civil war was possible in Iraq. President Lyndon Johnson painted an excessively rosy picture of U.S. involvement in Vietnam until the massive communist Tet offensive against the south in 1968 created a “credibility gap” in the public mind. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries successfully beat back the offensive, but the war was lost politically because the U.S. government lost the confidence of its own citizens. The Bush administration has fallen into the same trap by trying to “spin” away bad news from Iraq. Polls ominously indicate that Bush’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the American public has plummeted more than 20 points since September of 2003 to 40 percent.
     
  3. The Bush administration, like the Johnson and Nixon administrations, blames the media’s negative coverage for plunging popular support of the war. Yet the nature of the press is that it would rather cover extraordinary negative events, such as fires and plane crashes, than more mundane positive developments. Vietnam demonstrated that normal media coverage of mistakes in war could undermine the war effort. The Bush administration should have expected such predictable media coverage.
     
  4. Artificial government statistics cannot be used to measure progress in a counterinsurgency war. In Vietnam, the body counts of North Vietnamese/Viet Cong were always much greater than U.S./South Vietnamese deaths. Lately, the Bush administration has touted that fewer U.S. personnel are dying in Iraq. But U.S. forces have been pulled back from the fight to reduce U.S. casualties and to train Iraqi forces. In guerilla warfare, despite unfavorable statistics, as long as the insurgents keep an army in the field, they can win as the foreign invader tires of the occupation.
     
  5. The initial excessive use of force in counterinsurgency warfare instead of a plan to win hearts and minds. The U.S. military, since the days of U.S. Grant, has used superior firepower to win wars of attrition against its enemies. In Vietnam, the U.S. military used such tactics initially, but later adopted a softer counterinsurgency strategy only after it was too late. The Bush administration initially blasted towns like Falluja into rubble and only now, in an attempt to reduce support for the guerillas among the already angry population, is converting to a strategy aimed at winning Iraqi hearts and minds.
     
  6. Failed “search and destroy” tactics belatedly gave way to the “inkblot” approach of clearing and holding ground. In both Vietnam and Iraq, after search and destroy missions, enemy fighters merely returned to areas when “victorious” U.S. forces left. But not enough U.S. forces are in Iraq to make the “clear and hold” method work.
     
  7. “Iraqization” of the war parallels the unsuccessful “Vietnamization” in the 1970s. The Nixon administration never fully explained how the less capable South Vietnamese military could defeat the insurgency when the powerful U.S. military had failed. The same problem exists in Iraq.
     
  8. As in Vietnam, there has been no “date certain” for withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Bush recently implied that U.S. forces would be in Iraq when the next president takes office. Such an indefinite commitment of U.S. forces convinces more Iraqis that the United States is an occupier that needs to be resisted.
     
  9. Retention of incompetent policymakers. Lyndon Johnson retained Robert McNamara, the inept architect of the Vietnam strategy, as Secretary of Defense until McNamara himself turned against his own war. Bush has kept the bungling Donald Rumsfeld on too long in the same position.
     
  10. Most important of all, starting a war with another country for concocted reasons, which did not hold up under scrutiny. Lyndon Johnson used a questionable alleged attack by Vietnamese patrol boats on a U.S. destroyer to escalate U.S. involvement in a backwater country that was hardly strategic to the United States. Bush exaggerated the dangers from Iraqi weapons programs and implied an invented link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. In a republic, the lack of a compelling rationale for sending men to die in a distant war can be corrosive for the morale of the troops and public support back home.

The Bush administration is now suffering for its shocking failure to learn the lessons of the tragedy of Vietnam.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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