As he awaits a crucial progress report on Iraq, President Bush will try to put a twist on comparisons of the war to Vietnam by invoking the historical lessons of that conflict to argue against pulling out.
On Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri, Bush will tell members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that "then, as now, people argued that the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end," according to speech excerpts released Tuesday by the White House.
Those of us who were alive back then know that that was never a talking point for ending the war in Vietnam.
But the fact is that if, after withdrawing from Iraq, Iraq evolves into what Vietnam has evolved into, that's a good thing.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush will say.
"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,'" the president will say.
Bush is talking about the genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 1975-1978.
It reminds me of a scene in The English Patient, where Caravaggio confronts Almasy about the effect his collaboration with the Germans might have had:
"If the British hadn't unearthed that photographer, thousands of people could have died," to which Almasy replies, "Thousands of people did die, just different people."
Bush's war has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children, all for profiteering by an elite few. Bush has no problem with the genocide ongoing in Darfur and elsewhere around the world. When genocide is being committed by regimes which cooperate with U.S. institutions on cheap resources and labor, it's overlooked by our leaders.
[8/23/07 UPDATE: See Bush's "Killing Fields" and the Real Lesson of Vietnam, by Gareth Porter]
The president will also make the argument that withdrawing from Vietnam emboldened today's terrorists by compromising U.S. credibility, citing a quote from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the American people would rise against the Iraq war the same way they rose against the war in Vietnam, according to the excerpts.
"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility, but the terrorists see things differently," Bush will say.
The White House is billing the speech, along with another address next week to the American Legion, as an effort to "provide broader context" for the debate over the upcoming Iraq progress report by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.
President Bush has frequently asked lawmakers -- and the American people -- to withhold judgment on his troop "surge" in Iraq until the report comes out in September.
It is being closely watched on Capitol Hill, particularly by Republicans nervous about the political fallout from an increasingly unpopular war.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would wait for the report before deciding when a drawdown of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq might begin.
Bush's speeches Wednesday and next week are the latest in a series of attempts by the White House to try to reframe the debate over Iraq, as public support for the war continues to sag.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans -- 64 percent -- now oppose the Iraq war, and 72 percent say that even if Petraeus reports progress, it won't change their opinion.
The poll also found a great deal of skepticism about the report; 53 percent said they do not trust Petraeus to give an accurate assessment of the situation in Iraq.
In addition to his analogy to Vietnam, Bush in Wednesday's speech will invoke other historical comparisons from Asia, including the U.S. defeat and occupation of Japan after World War II and the Korean War in the 1950s, according to the excerpts.
"In the aftermath of Japan's surrender, many thought it naive to help the Japanese transform themselves into a democracy. Then, as now, the critics argued that some people were simply not fit for freedom," Bush will say. "Today, in defiance of the critics, Japan ... stands as one of the world's great free societies."
Here we go again with the comparisons to other occupations.
To begin with, Iraq, unlike Japan, never attacked us. Japan, like Germany, surrendered. Japan, like Germany, was war-weary and anxious for post-war rebuilding. Japan, unlike Iraq, was a homogenous society with no ethnic emnity or tension. And unlike Iraq, the U.S. occupation forces in Japan never dissolved the local police forces. There was no Marshall Plan for Japan; the burden of reconstruction fell on the Japanese people and wasn't outsourced to American contractors. Japan's military was disbanded, and as any production that was war-related was forbidden, Japan's workforce (a huge population of planners, capitalists, managers, engineers, and skilled and unskilled workers) was redirected to productive civilian enterprises. Instead of building military aircraft, they developed the "bullet train" railway system. Instead of manufacturing tanks, they converted their factories to manufacturing heavy construction equipment. Electronics firms like Toshiba and Hitachi, formerly military subcontractors, began producing consumer goods. Honda and Sony, too.
Speaking about the Korean War, Bush will note that at the time "critics argued that the war was futile, that we never should have sent our troops in, or that America's intervention was divisive here at home."
"While it is true that the Korean War had its share of challenges, America never broke its word," Bush will say. "Without America's intervention during the war, and our willingness to stick with the South Koreans after the war, millions of South Koreans would now be living under a brutal and repressive regime."
An argument can be made that we're in the fix we're in in Iraq precisely because America broke its word after the first Gulf War. Bush 41 encouraged the Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein, and when some did, the U.S. looked away as Saddam Hussein quickly took care of the threat to his regime. General Schwartzkopf's decision to allow Saddam Hussein to fly helicopters, which Saddam used to mow down Shi'ia with bullets, has been identified as one of the sloppy mistakes of that post-war period. We knew about it and did nothing.
Another argument can be made that our foreign policy of the last fifty years has gotten us into this mess. A policy crafted by the 4C's (Corporate Capitalist Conservative Class), obsessed with discouraging and destroying communist bogeymen who they saw hanging out around every sweatshop with tracts encouraging workers to stand together and demand a piece of the good life they were making for their bosses.
If Bush wants to have a debate about Vietnam, bring it on. But it won't be selective revisionist history, with snappy slogans and whitewashed stories. It'll be with the full history coming to light, dirty little secrets, covert ops and all.