Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Lesson George W. Didn’t Learn

The American President seems keen to repeat his country’s mistakes

Last November 17, as George W Bush visited Hanoi for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the US president had some philosophical thoughts to deliver about the lessons he said the United States had learned from the Vietnam War, the longest conflict in US history.

"We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush told reporters. "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile.”

It is questionable what lessons the president took away from Vietnam, where nearly 58,000 American soldiers died and more than 300,000 were wounded in more than 14 years of hot and cold conflict before the Americans gave up. But if history is any yardstick, he probably ought to take careful consideration of ordering a surge in American troops in Iraq.

With US troop deaths in Iraq just having passed the 3,000 mark at the end of 2006, the president is reportedly about to order a “surge” in troop strength, by as many as 30,000, possibly shifting a military unit from Kuwait, redeploying or sending troops back to Iraq earlier than planned, or keeping US Marine units on duty longer than scheduled, or a combination of these, resulting in an instant boost to troop levels, particularly in an attempt to quell the growing violence in Baghdad.

One of the lessons the president might have learned when he visited Vietnam was about the number of “surges” Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson delivered from 1961 through 1968. The first American troops arrived in the country in strength in 1961, although advisers had been there since the early 1950s when the French left after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

By 1965, troop strength had “surged” to 125,000 from 75,000. At the end of the year, they had surged again, to 200,000. By January 1957, they had surged to 389,000. By July 1967, troop strength had surged to 475,000.

And, of course, by January 1968, they had surged to more than 500,000, when Gen. William Westmoreland, the military commander at the time, was reporting that the Vietnam insurgency had largely been quelled. Then the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong staged a surge of their own during the Lunar New Year. An estimated 165,000 civilians are believed to have died, creating millions more refugees. Hundreds of GIs and Marines died as the Viet Cong fought their way to the US Embassy in Saigon. The battle for the old imperial capital of Hue killed hundreds of US Marines and virtually destroyed perhaps the most beautiful city in the country.

Westmoreland asked for another 200,000 troops. At that point, Johnson, beleaguered in the White House as Bush has never been over Iraq, brought in Clark C. Clifford, a long-time Washington, DC insider, as Secretary of Defense to reexamine the US mission in Vietnam. After several weeks, Clifford concluded that “there is no concept or overall plan anywhere in Washington, DC for achieving victory in Vietnam.”

That may sound familiar to those reading the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James A. Baker III, the 2006 version of the Washington Wise Man. The group’s report basically concluded that the war in Iraq cannot be won by the US. Recommendations include withdrawing US combat troops by March 2008, leaving only a limited number to help train and advise the Iraqis and involving Syria and Iran in negotiations as client states for the insurgents. The ISG’s belief that surges are out of the question has not been received warmly by the president.

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