Many have forgotten how the United States lost in Vietnam, but not former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. When the last American military unit was withdrawn in 1973, the Viet Cong had been defeated and the North Vietnamese army checkmated. For the next two years, "South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy," Laird writes in the current Foreign Affairs. "Given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself." Instead, "we grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory [in 1975] when Congress cut off the funding for South Vietnam that had allowed it to continue to fight on its own. . . . Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun." It was a stunning and unnecessary defeat for America and for a free Vietnam. And the lesson is clear: A war can be won on the ground overseas and lost in Washington.
We are not at that point in Iraq, not yet anyway. Nonetheless, with the events of last week in Washington, plus another in Dubai, the specter of defeat suddenly looms on the horizon. An Iraq that America allows to fall into the hands of Saddamites and jihadists is no longer inconceivable. Winning in Iraq isn't enough. The war must be won in Washington as well.
By themselves, the events are small. A normally hawkish Democratic congressman, John Murtha calls for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The Republican-controlled Senate passes a resolution that says 2006 is the year to begin a "phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq." Democrats continue their attacks on President Bush for allegedly hyping or falsifying the prewar intelligence on Iraq.
And on top of all that, former President. Clinton was a strong supporter of the war — but no longer. "Saddam is gone," he said at the American University in Dubai. "It's a good thing. But I don't agree with what was done. It was a big mistake." By "it," Clinton meant the invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.
Taken together, these events are ominous. They may not represent an irreversible new consensus among the political class toward America's intervention in Iraq. But at a minimum, they suggest that troop removal has superseded victory as the primary American concern. The current shift in attitude is reminiscent of the one that followed the Tet Offensive in 1968, which consisted of Democratic defections, Republican anxiety, and a general loss of confidence in America's ability to prevail in Vietnam. And we know where all that led: directly to the 1975 collapse.
The defection of Clinton may be the most alarming development since he is a bellwether, a reliable reflector of where elite opinion is headed. Just last year, he expressed his support for the "Iraq thing" in strong terms. He explained that the president, post-9/11, had to do everything possible to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. Now he's flipped. His wife, Democratic senator Hillary Clinton, may follow.
Murtha's insistence on an immediate pullout of all American troops is significant, if only because he is one of the few Democrats in Congress who has ever been called pro-military or a hawk. His call for withdrawal was more emotional than rational, but definitely sincere. He nearly broke down when talking about the wounded soldiers he's visited.
The Senate resolution represented a serious miscalculation by Republican leaders. They were worried that a Democratic measure, proposed by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, would pass with help from a few Republicans. So they concocted, with White House approval, an alternative to appeal to Republican waverers. It undermined the Levin proposal, but it was interpreted by the press as a break with Bush's Iraq policy.
The Levin resolution would have required a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq. The Republican alternative has no schedule of withdrawals, but it includes mushy language from the Democratic bill about beginning the pullout of troops from Iraq.
Republican leaders expected the defeat of the Levin resolution to attract media attention. It didn't. On the contrary, the media focused on the Republican measure and reported that it reflected Republican dissatisfaction with Bush. Republican John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the resolution reflected public unease over Iraq.
What message did this package of events send to the insurgents in Iraq? Stay the course, the Americans may be going soft again, just as they did in Somalia a decade ago, in Lebanon in the 1980s, and in Vietnam in the 1970s. What other conclusion could the insurgents draw?
This leaves Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the entire administration with a larger task than refuting the trumped-up Democratic charge that they misrepresented intelligence on Iraq. They're already off to a good start in knocking down that canard. Now they must quash the idea of Vietnam redux.
Mel Laird, it turns out, isn't the only person who's been thinking about the parallel between Iraq and Vietnam. So has Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy. In his intercepted email to al Qaeda's man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he said, "Things may develop faster than we imagine." He wrote that "the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam %#151 and how they ran and left their agents — is noteworthy." Indeed, and it is relevant.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes