Bush's Top 10 'Vietnam' Mistakes
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
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,
"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
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
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:
the Bush administration, almost from the start, has eschewed any
comparison of Iraq with Vietnam, officials apparently never read the
history of the nations heretofore worst war and have made the same 10
- Underestimating the enemy. As in Vietnam, the superpowers 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
- 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 Bushs
trustworthiness in the eyes of the American public has plummeted more
than 20 points since September of 2003 to 40 percent.
- The Bush administration, like the Johnson and Nixon
administrations, blames the medias 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 Institutes
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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