Bush's History Problem; in Vietnam, Our Adversary Had an Alternative Ideology. That Is Not the Case in Iraq

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Hirsh

Much was changing in Vietnam when I visited in December 1991, in the waning hours of the Soviet Union. The coziness between Moscow and Hanoi, once comrades, had curdled into mutual contempt. The Russians, aware their empire was imploding, had little interest in their former client-state and were looking to leave. The Vietnamese had come to despise the large Russian population for, among other things, its cheap spending habits. By contrast, they welcomed Americans--"Russians with dollars," we were called. The day I visited the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon--where some of the iconic photos symbolizing American defeat were taken--government workmen were removing a discolored brass plaque that once commemorated the North's victory over "U.S. imperialists." At the time of my visit, propaganda against American involvement in Southeast Asia was no longer politically correct. Hanoi's message: Yankees come back (and bring your investment dollars). The cold-war dominoes had fallen--just in America's direction.

Vietnam remains only nominally communist today; Hanoi knows it is an ideological relic surrounded by capitalist tigers, most of them U.S. allies or dependents (which is why Hanoi was eager to have George W. Bush visit last November--it wants to be part of the club). This is the "harsh" aftermath Bush described last week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq like we did in Vietnam. His speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Kansas City, Mo., was an abuse of historical fact, mainly because we know now Vietnam was never a central front in the cold war. The decision to pull out had little effect on the ultimate outcome of what John Kennedy called the "long, twilight struggle." America triumphed in the cold war because it had an open economy and its ideas about freedom were more attractive to states in the Soviet bloc than those coming from Moscow and Beijing.

The president is arguing that Iraq is a similar struggle. But in contrast to the Soviet and Chinese communists, Al Qaeda and its ilk have no persuasive alternative ideology to democracy, free markets and globalization. They're nihilists. So while a U.S. pullout would inspire Al Qaeda to propagandize that it beat the Americans, the majority of the world's elites wouldn't buy it. The slow bleed of American might and prestige on the streets of Iraq makes for a more compelling picture of U.S. weakness than any Qaeda propaganda could. If America dramatically reduces its forces in Iraq--it will be a long time before we can leave altogether--Al Qaeda will brag on its Web sites, and perhaps win more adherents, but that won't get the terrorists any closer to a "victory" over us than they are now. …