Monday, January 29, 2007

Fred Barnes and the New "Stab in the Back" Legend

Fred Barnes has a rather amazing column in the Weekly Standard. According to Barnes:

. . . certain parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are uncanny. A new general, David Petraeus, is taking over in Iraq with a credible new strategy, counterinsurgency. Four decades ago, General Creighton Abrams became the American commander in Vietnam, also with a new strategy. It called for taking and holding the villages and hamlets of South Vietnam. In a word, it was counterinsurgency, and it worked. Now in Iraq, Petraeus has as good a chance of success, starting with the pacification of Baghdad, as Abrams had. And the painful lesson of Vietnam applies in Iraq: Don't give up when victory is at hand.

Barnes is right that Abrams did manage to do a good job with "Vietnamization"--the process of training and equipping the South Vietnamese army so that they could fight on their own, but the idea that they were "close to victory over the Communist forces of North Vietnam" is absurd. If the U.S. had continued to help the South Vietnamese with airstrikes and massive financial assistance, they might have been able to hold on in 1975, but it's unlikely.

First, the biggest problem facing the South Vietnamese in the spring of 1975 was not a lack of supplies or U.S. air support. Rather it was President Thieu's decision to abandon the Central Highlands region. This strategic error set off a rout in the South Vietnamese army from which it was unable to recover.

Second, the chances of the U.S. continuing massive support for the South Vietnamese were next to zero. By the end of the war in 1973, the U.S. public had turned massively against the war. By 1975, two years after U.S. troops left, almost no one wanted to continue support what was seen as a lost cause. As Rick Perlstein pointed out recently in the New Republic, when President Ford asked for $700 million in emergency aid for the faltering South Vietnamese, 78 percent of those Americans polled opposed the bill. Does Barnes really believe that liberal critics of the war managed to hoodwink 3 out of 4 Americans into snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

Finally, even if there had been some fantastic turn of events in which Thieu showed better military sense and the U.S. came to the aid of the South Vietnamese, this would not have represented anything resembling "victory" over the North Vietnamese At best, the South Vietnamese would have been able to avoid total collapse, but the North Vietnamese would almost certainly have continued the war.

Barnes's selective history of the end of the Vietnam War amounts to a new "stab in the back" legend, intended to shift the blame for the Iraq war from the Bush administration to opponents of the war. In doing so, he's setting up a "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition. If the U.S. gets lucky and the "surge" does manage to turn the situation around in Iraq, supporters of the war get the credit. But if the surge doesn't work, then it's not because the surge was too little, too late, it's because critics of the war undermined an otherwise successful strategy.

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