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Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 / 12 Adar, 5764

Michael Barone

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The long shadow of Vietnam |
Over our debates on Iraq and the war on terrorism hangs the specter of Vietnam. You can hear it in the arguments made by George W. Bush's opponents and critics. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they say, although he was only reporting the conclusions of major intelligence services, just as Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin and Richard Nixon lied when he said he had a plan to end the war. Bush made war for oil, Europeans say, just as some critics argued, absurdly, that America went to war in Vietnam for offshore oil. Bush acted despite the opposition of some of our allies, as indeed Johnson did in Vietnam.

One of the lessons many liberal Americans took from Vietnam was that the United States could not always be counted on to be on the side of the good guys, and, indeed, was often on the side of the bad guys. They preferred to look away from the bloodbath that followed our defeat in Vietnam, just as today's Bush critics are not much interested in the liberation of Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's tyranny. In the post-Vietnam period, these Americans concentrated on seeking unilateral disarmament or a nuclear freeze, limiting the power of the military and the CIA, erecting a firewall between the FBI and the CIA, and seeking multilateral foreign approval for American action. All of this was informed by a sense that the Vietnam War was a paradigmatic event in American history and that its lessons should be the basis of all future policy.

You can see the results in the staff reports of the 9/11 commission —a much more sober and evenhanded account than Richard Clarke's testimony, which reflexively anti-Bush media have focused on. These carefully drafted narratives show that the top officials of the Clinton administration were seriously concerned about the threat of al Qaeda and worked hard to do something about it but were frustrated at every turn. By a fear that the CIA would be charged with assassination of a foreign leader. By a lawyer-driven caution that prevented attempts to kill Osama bin Laden. By a rigid separation between domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies. By a military leadership that feared an absence of domestic consensus for action. And, yes, by the specter of Vietnam.

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This is especially dismaying because the Clinton administration, in many ways, moved America beyond Vietnam. Bill Clinton, in between apologizing for past American misdeeds, made inspiring statements celebrating how the United States has moved the world toward liberty and democracy. He took military action in Bosnia and Kosovo without seeking the approval of the United Nations. He got liberals into the happy habit they had not been in since the Kennedy years, of referring to American military forces as "us" rather than "them."

Bad guys. Now all that seems imperiled by the Democrats' hatred of George W. Bush and by the fact that John Kerry, more than most of his Democratic rivals this year and certainly more than Bill Clinton, still lives under the specter of Vietnam. Kerry's Senate record —his votes to cut defense and intelligence spending (which recent Bush ads have hammered home effectively), his support for the pro-Communist Sandinistas over the contra rebels —are in line with the liberal lesson from Vietnam, that the real danger in the world is of America's backing the bad guys.

George W. Bush does not live under the specter of Vietnam. His military service in those years was, unlike Kerry's, unheroic (though not unhazardous: Flying the F-102, a dog of an airplane, was dangerous). But Bush, unlike Kerry, does not center his biography on what he was doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kerry has apparently wanted to run for president all his life; there is no reason to believe Bush thought about running for president until after his father was defeated in 1992. From that vantage point, the paradigmatic events in American history were our victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War: proof that America was on the side of the good guys. The present contest between Bush and Kerry is a contest between different visions of American history, and a test of whether we still live under the specter of Vietnam or whether we have moved on.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone