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Vietnam Analogies Nothing New For GOP

President Bush compared Iraq to Vietnam in his VFW convention speech. (AP)

President Bush got the country's attention when, speaking before a VFW convention in Kansas City yesterday, he suggested that America's withdrawal from Vietnam was a mistake that resulted in a flood of refugees and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Southeast Asia -- and implied that the country could face similar consequences if it leaves Iraq. It seemed a big rhetorical step for an Administration that has until now resisted Iraq-Vietnam comparisons.

But when it comes to invoking Southeast Asia in arguing against an Iraq withdrawal, Bush is simply following the example of the Republican candidates seeking to replace him. They have been sounding this theme for weeks, to far less notice. John McCain, an early proponent of the "surge" strategy adopted by Bush earlier this year, summoned up the memories of Vietnam in warning against leaving Iraq prematurely in a speech on the Senate floor in July.

"Then, too, the argument in the United States focused primarily on whether U.S. forces should pull out. But many who supported that withdrawal in the name of human rights did not foresee the calamity that followed which included genocide in Cambodia, tens of thousands slaughtered in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese and the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of boat people," said McCain, who was held five years in a North Vietnam prison after his fighter jet was shot down. "I saw it once before. I saw a defeated military and I saw how long it took a military that was defeated to recover. And I saw a divided nation beset by assassinations and riots and a breakdown in a civil society."

McCain reiterated this argument last week on the Charlie Rose show, challenging Rose's assertion that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not have as significant consequences as some had feared. "It had an extraordinary impact on the area," McCain responded. "There was thousands executed. There was millions, hundreds of thousands put in reeducation camp. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, how got on boats to leave because of the oppressiveness of the government. In Cambodia, we saw 3 million people slaughtered in one of the great acts of genocide of the 20th century."

Rudy Giuliani has recently adopted the same argument against withdrawing from Iraq. In his 17-page foreign policy treatise in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. "America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War," he writes. "Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse."

Of course, many historians question this interpretation, noting, for instance, that the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was partly sparked by the U.S. presence in Vietnam and bombing of Cambodia, not simply by the later American withdrawal. Others note that there is no way of knowing that the mayhem in Vietnam that followed U.S. withdrawal was necessarily worse than what would have followed from a continued U.S. presence --after all, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died during the decade-plus of American involvement. Many also counter that the broader geopolitical consequences of the U.S. exit from Vietnam were not as dire as Giuliani describes -- the Soviet Union may have been temporarily energized, but it collapsed two decades later. And Vietnam, while nominally Communist today, is a stable nation on good terms with the U.S.

Some of the Democratic candidates have been making much the same argument about the dangers of overstating the consequence of withdrawal, with Bill Richardson weighing in today with a charge that Bush is "spinning history" by invoking a Southeast Asian bloodbath in the context of the Iraq debate. It looks as if voters better prepare to hear a lot more about "killing fields," "reeducation camps" and the "boat people" in the year to come.

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  August 23, 2007; 12:57 PM ET
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