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Vietnam analogy

09/15/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) For commentator Barrie Dunsmore the Vietnam War is not a perfect model for the War in Iraq - but it's not irrelevant either.


(Dunsmore) How does the Vietnam War compare to the Iraq War? That's one of the questions I am most frequently asked. And my answer doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. Culturally and historically, Vietnam and Iraq are very different places, and these are very different times. The scope of the two wars is not comparable. We've now passed the 1000 mark of American soldiers killed in Iraq. In Vietnam that many Americans were often killed in a couple of weeks. US forces have been in Iraq for about a year and a half; they were fighting in Vietnam for some thirteen years. But there is one similarity that to me has become evident; namely, that both were wars that did not need to be fought.

The premise for going to war in Vietnam was wrapped up in the Cold War. Communism could not be allowed to prevail in Vietnam or all of Southeast Asia would fall to communism which would represent a grave threat to the US and its allies. In an era when nuclear war was always possible, that logic seemed credible. However there came a point in the late sixties when even people such as then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began to admit to themselves that the US was not so much fighting communism as it was in a struggle with an indigenous independence movement in Vietnam -- a struggle America had no chance to win. Still the war continued for another six or seven years while another twenty-five thousand Americans died.

The premise for the war in Iraq, as we now know, was not about weapons of mass destruction nor about terrorism. The Bush administration's real intention was to shake up the Middle East: get rid of a nasty dictator, encourage democracy in the region and, not incidentally, strengthen Israel. Except for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, those other goals are looking rather fanciful. For their part, the Israelis now claim Iran is their new greatest threat.

So, how long should US troops remain in Iraq? Frankly, I don't think it would be wise to just pick up and leave immediately. Having come this far, we must make a reasonable effort to create some kind of stability there. To leave Iraq in shambles is to create a new haven for international terrorism along the lines of Afghanistan and Lebanon. But this cannot be allowed to become an open-ended commitment that America bears without significant help from its allies.

And so the question - which presidential candidate is best qualified to creatively extricate this country from its war of choice: the man who fought in Vietnam and then came home to argue the case against it -- or the man who supported that war, but chose not to fight it?

To me, that question has great relevance - as does Vietnam's sad consequences of blindly fighting on for a cause that never was.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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