Friday, October 20, 2006

The Tet offensive and Iraq

A couple of nights ago President Bush was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC News. When asked about a recent newspaper column by Thomas Friedman comparing the current state of fighting in Iraq with Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, Bush indicated he thought that might be accurate. According to ABC,

Stephanopoulos asked whether the president agreed with the opinion of
columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote in The New York Times today that the situation
in Iraq may be equivalent to the Tet offensive in Vietnam almost 40 years
ago.


"He could be right," the president said, before adding, "There's
certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an
election."


"George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to
inflict enough damage that we'd leave," Bush said. "And the leaders of al Qaeda
have made that very clear. Look, here's how I view it. First of all, al Qaeda is
still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying
to not only kill American troops, but they're trying to foment sectarian
violence. They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people
will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to
withdraw."


The problem is Mr. Bush has learned the wrong lesson about Tet. There is a conventional wisdom that while the U.S. won a military victory, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong won the psychological victory souring the American public on the war perhaps with the help of the liberal media. The problem with that analysis is what the American people soured on was less the fighting than being lied to about the fighting. Americans have been through many wars and are willing to make sacrifices when the national leadership is being straight with them. Americans were told repeatedly told things were going well and there “was a light at the end of the tunnel.” If you come to believe the national leadership is either dishonest or out of touch you are hardly inspired to send your son off to fight.

This is Alan Wolfe’s take on the Tet analogy,

… The recent upsurge in violence associated with the insurgency in Iraq
is the Tet Offensive all over again. Tet, we are told, was a military defeat for
the North Vietnamese but a psychological victory. Our enemies knew they could
not win on the battlefield and decided to change American public opinion
instead.


This analysis is nonsense on stilts. There is no "military" theatre
over here and "psychological" campaign over there. …. The notion that we "won"
the Tet offensive is designed to keep alive the dangerous illusion that
Americans never lose wars. In fact, we lost Vietnam and we are clearly on the
cusp of losing Iraq. We could not win in either case because the people we were
fighting against were able to mobilize more overall resources on behalf of their
cause than we were on behalf of ours. …

And Kevin Drum puts it this way,
… There have always been at least three competing historical
perspectives about Tet:


1. There's the military perspective: Tet was a huge setback for the North Vietnamese. They were badly defeated, took huge losses, were operationally crippled, and achieved none of their objectives.
2. There's the liberal media perspective: Even though we won, the left-wing press spun it as a defeat. That's why the public lost faith in the war.
3. There's the government mendacity perspective: For some time, LBJ had been assuring us that the war was going well and the Viet Cong were on the verge of collapse. Tet demonstrated that he was either lying or else completely divorced from reality.


I've always sided with #3. There's no question that #1 is technically correct, but in practice it simply meant that Gi├íp was vindicated in his preference for guerrilla warfare over conventional offensives. North Vietnam was fully able to continue prosecuting the war. And while the press was indeed gloomy about U.S. prospects after Tet, that was almost certainly because of #3, not #2. Walter Cronkite, the most famous of the pessimists, stated this clearly: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud." He concluded — correctly — not that we had lost, but that we were "mired in a stalemate."

But #3 is surely not the analogy that George Bush had in mind. So
which one is it? Is it #1, in which case he's convinced that this is a last
ditch effort by the insurgents and we're on the verge of a famous victory? Is it
#2, in which case he's laying the groundwork for a future claim that we could
have won if only the media hadn't been against us?


Or does he have no real clue, and just figures that any two battles in which the enemy demonstrates increased strength are pretty much the same
thing? …



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