Vietnam Syndrome Is Upon Us Yet Again

Despite America’s triumph in Desert Storm and Tommy Frank’s brilliant run up to Baghdad, the Vietnam Syndrome is with us yet.

We never really purged it from our system.

That is the meaning of 40 Senate votes on a resolution demanding that President Bush give quarterly progress reports and a timetable for getting us out of Iraq. While 58 senators voted no on timetables, they bought into the rest of the resolution.

And what is the message? We are not going deeper into Iraq, as McCain urges. We are not going to stay the course, as Bush insists. America is coming home. It is but a matter of time.

My college dictionary defines syndrome as “a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.”

Symptoms of the Vietnam Syndrome, clearly visible now, include a deepening divide in the country, a new savagery in politics, a reluctance to spend more blood in a cause in which one no longer believes, wounded protests that one was deceived and the portrayal of one’s loss of nerve as a principled advance toward a higher moral plane.

With 57 percent of the nation no longer believing Bush an honest and truthful man, and 60 percent believing Iraq was a mistake and we should start bringing the troops home, it is impossible to see how the president can sustain the war effort. The Senate Democrats have gone over the hill, and the Republicans only await the bugle call to retreat.

And the enemy is not stupid. They can see the American home front crumbling and know that if they can hold on, they will not much longer be facing 150,000 U.S. troops.

America’s problem is that, while we are not losing this war, we have not crushed the insurgency. And if a guerrilla army does not lose, it wins. The only way America can win this war is with a massive infusion of U.S. troops. Yet, even John McCain is not advocating that.

America appears unwilling to pay the price in blood, money and years to achieve what Bush calls victory. Whether that represents a failure of will on the part of the American people or a failure of leadership on the part of President Bush, the result is the same.

What caused the nation to turn against the war and our war president needs to be studied for what it tells us about ourselves as a people.

We Americans are lousy imperialists. We lack the patience and perseverance. We will not support the daily loss of American lives, with pictures of the fallen on TV every night and in the paper every day, unless we are persuaded something vital is at risk. And who rules Iraq is not something Americans are willing to bleed or die for indefinitely.

But as the air is full of allegations of lying, we at least need to tell ourselves the truth about what we are inviting, what we are risking, if, as seems possible now, America should lose this war.

One certainty is that many Iraqis who cast their lot with us will pay the price Algerians loyal to France paid when the French departed in 1962. And if the U.S. Army and Marine Corps could not crush an insurgency in three years, it is difficult to see how an Iraqi army, trained by the U.S. Army and Marines, can do the job.

Thus, the United States must accept the possibility, if not probability, that our enemies will control the Sunni Triangle and contest Baghdad, thus leading to breakup of the nation and civil war. For the Kurds and Shia are not going to accept Sunni rule again.

America would aid the Kurds and Iran the Shia in any such war. The Sunni would look to fellow Arabs for help, the price of which might be the head of Zarqawi. As for the impact of any such war on oil prices, the only question is how devastating it would be.

Here at home, there would be years of bitter recrimination, as there were after Korea and Vietnam. The Democrats might do well to recall the fate of their fathers who voted to take us into Vietnam, then to cut off funding for the war. Between 1968 and 1988, Democrats lost the presidency in five of six elections, ruined their reputation as reliable custodians of the national security and lost the nation to Reaganism.

As for Bush, a retreat from Iraq and defeat there would mean a failed presidency. The Bush Doctrine of employing U.S. power to unhorse dictators and impose democracy will be dead.

America will adopt a new non-interventionist foreign policy, except where vital U.S. interests are imperiled. The tragedy is that we did not do, voluntarily, 15 years ago, what a foolish, failing neoconservative foreign policy may now force us to do in the not-too-distant future.