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Monday, November 17

Insurgency in Iraq invokes ghosts of Vietnam for Bush

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON -As the Bush administration scrambles to stabilize an unexpectedly volatile occupation in Iraq, no shortage of critics are comparing the campaign there to the war in Vietnam.

Most of it is just politics. There are numerous important differences between the two from the number of dead to the duration and the political dynamic driving each.

The insurgency in Vietnam flowed from a full-blown nationalist movement. Marauding thugs are waging the violence in Iraq.

And yet as the insurgency in Iraq builds, President Bush finds himself facing some of the same specters from the failed campaign in Southeast Asia that toppled Lyndon Johnson.

In Vietnam, politics drove an ill-fated strategy against a poorly understood enemy amid a drumbeat of damaging news.

Some of those planets are aligning again.

Bush is fighting an insurgency he clearly never envisioned, which his inner circle assured Americans would never coalesce. Increasingly, officers on the ground in Iraq are starting to contradict the pronouncements from Washington.

And like Johnson, Bush is clearly frustrated with the news coverage of his war and its inevitable effect on his poll numbers.

How Bush handles these potentially crushing pressures - with an election looming - will affect not only the campaign in Iraq but also the presidency he has staked on it.

"For 30 years Vietnam has been the lens through which all American foreign policy is viewed," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said recently. ``Iraq is not Vietnam, but if we are to avoid a debate over who lost Iraq, we must act urgently to transform our early military success into lasting political victory."

Some of Bush's most important challenges in doing that are now unfolding.^Politics vs. strategy

As the 2004 election approaches, Bush will face tremendous political pressure to have turned a corner in Iraq. He will have to prove it by substantially drawing down U.S. troops while establishing at least an interim democratically inclined government the fractious Iraqis can live with.

If he can't, he'll have to weather a rising chorus of Vietnam comparisons, fair or not.

And with American troops dying daily in Iraq, there will be no small audience willing to consider the possibility that Iraq could implode the way Vietnam did.

The Bush plan now is to escalate the war against the insurgents, replace American troops with Iraqi security forces and accelerate the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis.

The goal is stability on the streets and elections by the end of 2005. The plan works only if the coalition forces can get a handle on security, and that particular part of the equation is trending heavily downward. Attacks against American troops are on the rise as are casualties.

This is not lost on the Iraqis, who are dying in far greater numbers than coalition troops. A recently leaked CIA analysis from Iraq reported the locals are losing faith in the U.S. efforts, raising the possibility some will side with the insurgents. If that happens in significant numbers, some of the fundamental characteristics of the conflict will start looking much more like Vietnam.

If the insurgency starts to become a popular movement, the Bush plan would almost certainly implode in ways eerily similar to the collapse of the American campaign in Vietnam following the 1968 Tet offensive by North Vietnamese forces. It marked the beginning of the end for Johnson.

Still, there is plenty that can go right in Iraq, and is.

Intelligence on the insurgents appears to be improving with last week's successful pre-emptive attack against one of the terror cells that has been mortar shelling the American occupied green zone in Baghdad.

Considering the size of the operation in Iraq, American forces have managed to keep the accidental killing of Iraqi civilians remarkably low so far.

"American troops are following much better practices than they did in Vietnam," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. "Firepower is generally being used quite carefully."

If the plan to accelerate the transfer of governing authority back to the Iraqis starts showing signs it can work in the next several months, it could lift Iraqi morale. That would give at least the impression that the occupation is moving toward its promised, but widely doubted, conclusion.^Stability is key

If U.S. troops and Iraqis continue to die on a regular basis, Bush inevitably will face calls to deploy more troops from influential figures he will find increasingly hard to ignore.

McCain, who spent five years as a POW in Vietnam, is perhaps most notable among the lawmakers from Bush's own party already imploring him to ramp up the troop presence in Iraq.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has expressed perplexity over Bush's strategy. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, repeatedly has criticized Bush for his handling of the war.

The Bush administration has been adamant about reducing American troop numbers, insisting quickly trained Iraqi security forces can take over. The plan, informally called ''Iraqification,'' is notably similar to Nixon's ''Vietnamification'' strategy.

``Nixon's plan was simply to change the color of the bodies on the battlefield,'' said Bobby Muller, a combat Marine in Vietnam and now president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. ``That's what we're going to try and do in Iraq.''

Bush has declared Iraq a successful work in progress.

Thus re-escalating troop numbers several months from now would be a political disaster, inviting comparisons not only to Vietnam but to Johnson himself.

On the other hand, if Bush buckles under to campaign pressures and doesn't respond to mounting body counts and deteriorating security in Iraq, he risks making the hallmark mistake of Vietnam: letting politics guide military decisions.