While George W. Bush’s many critics and detractors portray him as facing the same dilemma as Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Bush himself seems determined to proceed the way Harry Truman did in Korea — or, as some might put it, as Winston Churchill did after Dunkirk.
Leading Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan have been calling for troop pullouts from Iraq starting in four to six months. The Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, The New York Times tells us, will recommend a "gradual pullback" of troops, direct negotiations with Iran and Syria and pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
But Bush seems unpersuaded. "There’s one thing I’m not going to do," he said at last week’s NATO summit in Riga, Latvia. "I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
In this, Bush has the support of others. Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates opposes a quick pullout. So does the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command’s Gen. John Abizaid.
Retired generals who have criticized Bush testified that we should send more troops into Iraq. Democrats seem disinclined to use their congressional majorities to cut short our mission in Iraq lest they be blamed for the unpleasant consequences many predict.
So maybe the Vietnam analogy will not apply. And it shouldn’t, because it’s misleading. The communists’ Tet offensive was a smashing defeat for them, not us, as outlined in Peter Braestrup’s 1977 book "Big Story." Military historian Lewis Sorley has shown how after Tet, Gen. Creighton Abrams produced a strategy that was proving successful — until Congress prevented the United States from fulfilling its promises of aid against the North Vietnamese offensive in 1975.
In Iraq, our enemies may not be making all the progress they seek, and changes in our military tactics are likely. Many argue for embedding more U.S. troops in Iraqi Army units. Other recommendations may come from the review commissioned — evidently out of dissatisfaction with current operations — by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.
Bush, like Truman and Churchill, seems determined not to concede defeat. And remember that for Truman on Korea and for Churchill after Dunkirk, no promising military courses were immediately apparent. Truman, after firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had forsaken the threat — a nuclear attack — that his successor Dwight Eisenhower deployed to get the communists to agree to a truce.
But Truman’s perseverance despite his 22 percent job approval — much lower than Bush’s — was essential in preserving the independence of South Korea, which now has the world’s 14th-largest economy. Churchill, facing Hitler alone, could promise only "blood, toil, tears and sweat" until his enemies’ mistakes — Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor — gave him the allies that made victory possible.
Churchill’s stubbornness prevented a Nazi victory in midsummer 1940.
We should keep in mind, as well, Bush’s repeated vow not to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. That’s in tension with the Iraq Study Group’s expected recommendation of direct negotiations with Iran: The obvious quid pro quo for Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq would be dropping our opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, the opposite approach may be what’s needed.
Historian Arthur Herman in this month’s Commentary calls for airstrikes not only on Iran’s nuclear facilities but also on its ports and refineries; Iran depends on imports for its gasoline, and without ports and refineries, its economy and military would grind to a halt.
That’s a move that might be condemned by the "international community," and it risks antagonizing the people of Iran, many of whom tend to hate the mullahs and admire America. But it also might destabilize the regime and dislodge a president who has threatened the destruction of Israel and America. Who today regrets Israel’s strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981?
NBC News has declared that Iraq is in the midst of a "civil war," just as CBS’s Walter Cronkite declared Vietnam was lost after Tet. Many in the mainstream media today, as in 1968, see nothing but the prospect of American defeat. George W. Bush seems to have other ideas.