The Ghosts of Vietnam

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 21, 2005; 12:42 PM

The topic of Vietnam is both an invited guest and an uninvited guest at the White House today.

In the first visit of its kind since the end of the Vietnam War 30 years ago, the Vietnamese prime minister came to the White House this morning and was warmly welcomed by President Bush into the Oval Office for a meeting that marked a decade of normalized relations.

But considerably less welcome has been the increasingly frequent talk about the historical parallels between the Vietnam War and the current situation in Iraq.

And unlike the prime minister, the Vietnam war talk is likely to stick around for a while.

Consider Republican North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, who not long ago championed "freedom fries" as a slap at the French for opposing the war in Iraq, but who told Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer last week that what's on his mind now is Vietnam.

" 'When I think about what happened in Vietnam -- we lost 58,000 -- I wonder, Wouldn't it have been nice if, two years into the war, some representatives would have said, "Mr. President, where we going?" ' "

Jones last week introduced a resolution calling on Bush to set a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home.

Susan Page , writing in USA Today, recently quoted Ronald Spector, a military historian at George Washington University, as saying that the pattern of public opinion on Iraq -- strong support for the first two years that then erodes -- is reminiscent of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Supporters of the war -- like Lt. Gen. James Conway , director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- also raise the specter of Vietnam, though as a case study in why not to set withdrawal deadlines, and why public support for the troops is so important.

USA Today's Steven Komarow talks to a few old-timer helicopter pilots in Iraq and finds: "If there are parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, these graying soldiers and the other Vietnam veterans serving here offer a unique perspective. They say they are more optimistic this time: They see a clearer mission than in Vietnam, a more supportive public back home and an Iraqi population that seems to be growing friendlier toward Americans."

But the Cunning Realist blog recently listed 15 similarities between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, among them:

"The justification for massive military escalation in Vietnam was based largely on a false pretense. . . .

"The Vietnam War was conceived by a supposedly elite group of thinkers and geopolitical strategists. . . .

"In Vietnam, the enemy's firepower was utterly inferior to ours. . . .

"As the casualties increased year after year in Vietnam, defenders of the war protested that pulling out would 'dishonor the sacrifice' of those troops who had already died."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes that Bush's plan to train Iraqi security forces to take over the fighting "bears more than a faint resemblance to 'Vietnamization,' Richard Nixon's identical -- and ill-fated -- idea for reducing our presence in Vietnam."

Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer takes note of the prime minister's visit today and writes: "It is thus an especially good time to reflect on the pitfalls of false patriotism and blind loyalty to a lost cause."

Legendary Pentagon critic Daniel Ellsberg recently wrote: "I'm often asked whether there aren't big differences between the Iraq War and Vietnam. And I'm always quick to say, of course, there are differences. In Iraq, it's a dry heat. And the language that none of our troops or diplomats speak is Arabic rather than Vietnamese."

Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek that Bush is facing an LBJ-sized problem: "The gap between what the American people saw on their television screens and what they heard from their political leaders back then gave rise to the phrase "credibility gap." Bush is flirting with the same fate."

Yesterday's Comments

Bush spoke briefly about the war yesterday, after meeting with two leaders of the European Union. Here's the transcript .

"I think about this every day, every single day, and will continue thinking about it, because I understand we've got kids in harm's way," Bush said. "And I worry about their families; and I obviously, any time there's a death, I grieve. But I want those families to know, one, we're not going to leave them -- not going to allow their mission to go in vain; and, two, we will complete the mission and the world will be better off for it."

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The president's short-term solution to ease the public anxiety is to spend more time talking about the mission and his vision for victory, aides say. Bush did not answer when asked whether he agreed with Vice President Cheney's assessment that the Iraq insurgency, which has killed more than 100 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of last month, is in its 'last throes.'

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "So far Mr. Bush's stay-the-course message has not diverged from what he has said for more than a year. But his tone was different on Monday, as he acknowledged that the going was 'tough' and he dodged a question about whether he agreed with Vice President Dick Cheney's recent assessment that the insurgency is in 'its last throes.' Several White House officials, when speaking behind the veil of anonymity, said they believed that Mr. Cheney was overly optimistic."

Finlay Lewis writes for Copley News Service: "President Bush offered an upbeat assessment yesterday of U.S. military operations in Iraq even as he acknowledged that the bloody toll there weighs on him daily."

David Gregory on NBC described Bush's statements as "a new level of damage control on Iraq."

Reality Check

Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel last week told U.S. News's Kevin Whitelaw : "Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality . . . It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."

Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked to respond at yesterday's briefing .

"Well, let me just say, first, that the President gets his information from the commanders and generals who are on the ground in Iraq, and he is fully confident that those leaders are firmly rooted in reality," McClellan said.

Poll Watch

Richard Benedetto and Judy Keen write in USA Today about the latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll: "Thirty-nine percent of Americans, mostly Republicans, now say they favor the war in Iraq, down from a high of 72% in April 2003, the day after the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad. . . .

"Bush's job approval rating is at 47%. It's been at 50% or lower for the past three months."

Here are the poll results .

CNN also notes: "For only the second time in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, more respondents than not disapproved of Bush's job performance. The count was 51 percent, the same percentage recorded in the poll on May 7, 2004."

Downing Street Memos Watch

Peter Grier writes an "explainer" on the Downing Street Memos in the Christian Science Monitor today: "To some analysts, these memos document how the White House was intent on war in Iraq only months after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, and manipulated intelligence to fit its preconceptions.

"To others, the information in the memos is vague, and their general conclusions are matters that were widely reported at the time.

"If nothing else, the memos do provide a rare glimpse into the process of policymaking at top levels, and provide the sort of quotes and conclusions that historians may cite for years to come."

Blogger Arianna Huffington looks at the number of news segments that mentioned the following stories between May 1 and June 20. For example:

"CBS News: 'Downing Street Memo': 0 segments; 'Natalee Holloway': 70 segments; 'Michael Jackson': 235 segments."

Media blogger Jay Rosen sees the media's grudging coverage of the memos as evidence that the press's news judgment is no longer king. The blogosphere "is a Court of Appeal in the State of Supreme News Judgment, and everyone knows the initial verdict can be reversed."

McClellan continues to successfully wave off any questions on the topic.

At yesterday's briefing :

" Q All right, Scott. At their joint news conference, both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair denied the major assumptions out of the so-called Downing Street memo. We've had other revelations, I guess, since then. But is the President wondering how the intelligence operatives and diplomatic operatives of the key ally in this mission came to these assumptions, came to these conclusions? Isn't he wondering how this happened?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think Prime Minister Blair addressed this very issue. They were memos relating to the United Kingdom and he addressed the issue in a news conference."

The Prime Minister's Visit

Bush took no questions at all from the press after he and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made brief statements at a photo op this morning.

Here's the transcript .

He did announce that he will be traveling to Vietnam next year for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit

Bush said he and Khai "discussed a wide range of subjects" including economic relations, Vietnam's desire to join the World Trade Organization, the war on terror and humanitarian issues.

The Vietnam war was not mentioned.

Here's an Associated Press photo of several hundred protesters outside the White House demonstrating against repressive conditions in the communist nation.

The Bolton Option

Charles Babington and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The Senate yesterday refused for a second time to confirm John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, prompting his supporters to urge President Bush to bypass Congress and give the controversial nominee a recess appointment, which would last 18 months. . . .

"A senior White House official said last night that Bush will still press for a confirmation vote but has no plans for further compromises on documents and is considering a recess appointment."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times about a proposal from White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to one of Bolton's chief Democratic opponents, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Stolberg writes: "Democrats are demanding information relating to his State Department tenure, including an early draft of a speech he was to deliver about Syria's weapons programs, and a list of names of American companies and officials reviewed by Mr. Bolton that were contained in classified reports maintained by the National Security Agency.

"Shortly before the vote on Monday, Mr. Card placed a telephone call to Mr. Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and offered to share information relating to the speech on Syria, aides to Mr. Biden said.

"But the White House was not willing to provide a full list of the names that Mr. Bolton had requested from National Security Agency reports, called intercepts, and Mr. Biden announced on the Senate floor that he had refused the offer about the speech on Syria."

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "The president could withdraw the nomination, authorize further concessions to Democrats over access to information they seek or bypass lawmakers altogether by appointing the former State Department official to the job temporarily without the Senate's OK.

"But any of those options could leave the president appearing weak as he confronts sagging poll numbers and fights to stave off a lame-duck label just six months into his final term."

Doctrinal Check

Also from yesterday's briefing:

" Q Scott, just for the record, following up on the bin Laden question, is the Bush doctrine -- you're either for us or against us -- still in effect?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made those views very clear."

But of course it's not at all clear, particularly in light of the recent Time magazine interview with CIA Director Porter Goss, in which Goss said he has an "excellent idea" of where Osama bin Laden is, but that his capture is hindered by the "very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states."

Meet Harriet Miers

The Washington Post's Michael A. Fletcher talks to White House counsel Harriet Miers, but she doesn't tell him much.

Fletcher explains: "Miers's reticence is not to be mistaken for a lack of assertiveness or ambition. Rather, friends and associates say, it reflects her scrupulous discretion and selflessness -- the same qualities that propelled her rise through the legal ranks and into President Bush's inner circle. . . .

"Working with her staff of 13 lawyers, and in cooperation with the Justice Department, Miers's office provides guidance on issues from the legal parameters for the war on terrorism to presidential speeches. Her office also takes the lead in vetting and recommending candidates for the federal judiciary, all the way up to the Supreme Court. . . .

"That work has taken on new urgency with [Chief Justice William H.] Rehnquist's weakened condition -- something Miers does not care to discuss."


Reuters reports: "The White House is waiting for the go ahead from congressional leaders before asking for final votes on a controversial free trade pact with Central America, a top Bush administration official said on Monday."

The Africa Question

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Though leading industrial nations plan to extend Africa a dramatic helping hand at a world summit next month, the United States already is at odds with other members of the club over just how generous that new aid should be."

Texas Politics

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "President Bush will not get involved in the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary, a decision that allows him to avoid choosing between his successor in Austin and his press secretary's mother.

"Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, mother of White House spokesman Scott McClellan, announced Saturday that she will challenge Gov. Rick Perry in next year's Republican primary."

Greatest Americans

The Washington Post's Names & Faces column reports that Discovery Channel viewers have winnowed their list of " Greatest Americans " down to five: Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and George Washington.

Bush almost made the cut: he was no. 6.

"I think to a certain extent this list reflects the here and now, and [the viewers] had all the votes," executive producer Mark Finkelpearl told The Post. "There's not much else you can say about it."

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