Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bush warns of Iraqi ‘killing fields’/Observers puzzle over Vietnam comparison

Bush warns of Iraqi ‘killing fields’
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 22 2007 14:31 | Last updated: August 22 2007 18:12

George W. Bush on Wednesday said the consequences of a US withdrawal from Iraq could echo the “killing fields” genocide that destroyed Cambodia after the US pulled out from Vietnam in the mid-1970s.

In a speech signalling Mr Bush is in no mood to compromise with his Iraq war critics, the US president threw down the gauntlet in advance of Democratic plans next month to revive a congressional vote setting a deadline for withdrawal of most of the 160,000 US troops in Iraq.

Much of Mr Bush’s speech, which was delivered in Kansas City to the US Veterans of Foreign Wars, focused on the history of the US occupation of Japan and Germany after the second world war and on the aftermath of the US military pull-out from Indochina.

“The price of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people”, “re-education camps” and “killing fields”, Mr Bush said. “Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Withdrawal without getting the job done would be a disaster.”

The US president, who appeared to be in ebullient spirits, also reprised his controversial linking of democracy to religious values. “We are still in the early hours of the current ideological struggle,” he said. “Our world will never be safe until the people of the Middle East know the freedom that our Creator intended for all.”

Wednesday’s speech, which offered a strong echo of the neoconservative agenda that characterised Mr Bush’s first term, was greeted with derision by many of Mr Bush’s critics. In a statement, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, said: “We need to stop refereeing the war and start getting out now.”

Anthony Cordesman, a leading Iraq analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “Mr Bush preaches to the choir without noticing that the choir is getting smaller every time. The American people needed to hear about prospects on the ground in Iraq. Instead we got a history lesson that would have embarrassed a first year undergraduate.”

Lawrence Korb, a Vietnam war veteran and now senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said: “If President Bush had served in Vietnam he would have been more cautious about expecting we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. Had we remained bogged down in Vietnam when there was no military solution we would not have been able to win the Cold War.”

Mr Bush’s speech comes less than a month before David Petraeus, the US general in charge in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, report to Congress on the progress achieved by the “new way forward in Iraq” that Mr Bush unveiled in January.

Mr Bush has argued for more time to assess the progress of the 30,000 troop “surge” that was only completed in mid-June. But a growing number of Republican lawmakers, most of whose seats are vulnerable in next year’s elections, have expressed impatience with the slow pace of political reform in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, Freedom Watch, a Republican group that is run by Ari Fleischer, who was Mr Bush’s first presidential spokesman, launched a $15m television campaign focused on the districts of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are wavering.

Its targets, which include moderate Republican senators, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are mostly the same as those targeted by a $12m media campaign by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, an anti-war group.

“These ads are squeezing from the right the very same Republicans who are feeling the heat from their constituents back home for their support for Bush’s failed war policy,” said Moira Mack, spokeswoman for the group.

Observers puzzle over Vietnam comparison
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 24 2007 16:25 | Last updated: August 24 2007 16:25

President George W. Bush’s speech this week suggesting that the US should exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam by staying the course in Iraq was partly aimed at winning over wavering Republican lawmakers.

It marked the opening salvo in what could be the stormiest phase of the Iraq war debate; next month Congress is likely to consider a deadline for withdrawal after it hears a progress report on Mr Bush’s 30,000-troop surge.

Few believe the Democratic majority can muster the two-thirds margin needed to override Mr Bush’s veto on laws passed by Congress, which he has used twice before this year to kill less stringent resolutions.

But what remains of the president’s public standing is likely to suffer further damage if a large number of Republicans cross over to the Democratic side. Among the targets of Mr Bush’s speech was John Warner, the octogenarian senator from Virginia, who was secretary of the navy in the Nixon administration when it pulled US troops out of Vietnam in 1973.

On Thursday Mr Warner added his voice to the chorus questioning Mr Bush’s sense of history. “I read it very carefully,” said Mr Warner. “I feel that there are no parallels, really. It’s a different type of situation.”

Others, such as Ted Kennedy, the Democratic senator for Massachusetts, who described the Iraq war as “Bush’s Vietnam”, were more blunt. But most observers said they were puzzled as to why Mr Bush would link America’s most humiliating modern episode to his own immediate fortunes in Iraq.

In the speech Mr Bush likened the consequences of a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq to the genocide that Pol Pot wrought on Cambodia after 1975 and the re-education camps the Vietnamese communists set up for former collaborators with the Americans.

In what was perhaps the most history-laden speech of his presidency, Mr Bush also associated the US project in Iraq with its occupation and democratisation of Japan after 1945 and its defence of the Korean peninsula against the Chinese-backed communist uprising in 1950.

His central theme was to identify a universal yearning for freedom to which the US plays handmaiden, in a narrative beginning with the world wars and concluding with Iraq. “I recognise that history cannot predict the future with any certainty,” he said. “But history does remind us that there are lessons applicable to our time.”

So far the reception has been harsh. “Most people in America see Vietnam as a mistake and will wonder: ‘Does President Bush mean we should still be in Vietnam? Don’t we have good relations with Vietnam now?’ ” said Charlie Cook, a leading political analyst. “You could hold a five-day symposium of the best brains and they still wouldn’t figure out what Mr Bush could gain from remind- ing people of Vietnam.”

However, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser in the Carter administration and a tough critic of Mr Bush, said he saw a political logic in Mr Bush’s parallel. “Americans have accepted that the war in Iraq is unwinnable,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean they want to see images of helicopters taking off from the Green Zone and troops abandoning tanks and equipment as they retreat. Bush was appealing to America’s desire to avoid another Vietnam-style humiliation, however wrong-headed his underlying analysis.”

Former officials say Mr Bush was also pitching for a better place in history than contemporary observers are according him. The US president has referred on several previous occasions to Harry Truman, who left office in 1952 a deeply unpopular figure but whom later generations reappraised as one of America’s most far-sighted presidents.

“President Bush has no intention of withdrawing from Iraq unless the situation has drastically improved,” said a former speechwriter to Mr Bush. “He still believes future generations will look back on the Iraq war as a historic turning point that planted democracy in the Middle East. In that he is unshakeable.”

The US president has staked out ground before only to give way when expediency dictated. Mr Bush insisted that the US was winning the war in Iraq right up until the Republican party’s defeat in mid-term elections last November. The following day he sacked Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, and ordered a review of the war.

But with just 16 months left in office and the US military dangerously overstretched, Mr Bush has almost no scope to launch another overhaul of America’s military strategy in Iraq. His options are to sustain the existing troop surge for as long as he can, or order a gradual drawdown.

“By linking Iraq to Vietnam Mr Bush has unconsciously admitted what a massive failure this war has been,” said Mr Brzezinski. “It is doubtful his speech will sway many people.”


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