Hoover Daily Report

Iraq and Vietnam

Monday, December 15, 2003

Despite a lifelong drift toward the political right, I remain convinced that my opposition to the Vietnam War was correct. I could not then and cannot today see the wisdom of stirring the ashes of French colonial ruin. Nor could I embrace the "tactical evacuation" of villagers from their ancestral homes, the Agent Orange employed to poison crops the enemy might eat, the phantom victories and inflated enemy body counts, the hoax of Vietnamization. I saw no dominoes beyond Indochina, only the inertia of committed egos. True, great powers should not lightly abandon their friends, but that sad result was preordained by political and geopolitical reality.

Today critics of the U.S. effort in Iraq casually invoke the memory of Vietnam. The United States finds itself in another quagmire, they claim, lured into battle by executive branch tactics as tricky as those employed by LBJ at the Gulf of Tonkin—overwhelmed by an enemy that feeds off popular resentment of the occupier, facing humiliation unless it can dump its obligations on a reluctant international community.

The comparison fails on every front. Saddam Hussein—with none of the national revolutionary credentials of Ho Chi Minh—was a Stalinist-style butcher who slaughtered his own people by the hundreds of thousands, waged aggressive war, employed chemical weapons, and sought to acquire a nuclear arsenal. He harbored terrorists and advertised his commitment to fattening the estates of suicide bombers. The very thought of this megalomaniac making or disposing of weapons of mass destruction according to his perception of an external threat is a decisive argument for armed intervention, not the reverse.

I am convinced, however, that a larger U.S. force was needed to take control of the country, to disarm potential foes, and to establish security in the immediate aftermath of the war. Iraq's army was needlessly disbanded, its internal security forces told to scatter. The United States has approached the formation of an Iraqi government and the implementation of a working constitution as though on a timetable befitting postcolonial America living under the Articles of Confederation. Meanwhile, attacks against U.S. forces multiply. The death and injury tolls mount.

Pressure on President Bush to take decisive action is intensifying. That is fine, if the action is designed to secure victory and not to paper over defeat. We need sufficient forces on the ground to choke the enemy, to aggressively carry the fight to places like Falluja—rather than carrying American bodies out. Our credo should be democracy for Iraqis who work with us, destruction for those who bomb civilian hotels, shoot down helicopters, kill Red Cross workers, and murder Italian cops.

From the outset the administration has accurately articulated the stakes in Iraq: We cannot allow terrorism to prevail in a part of the world where U.S. interests are vital and where fanatical movements may soon wield weapons of mass destruction. Now the administration must fight like it believes its own words. Here, unlike Vietnam, a fig leaf for defeat will not do.