Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


August 2005

Anti-war activists are more vocal this summer about President Bush's handling of the war, as public approval dropped below 50 percent in recent polls. Critics seem to be gearing up for a major campaign this fall to persuade the White House to disengage from Iraq sooner that the president thinks is wise.

This sounds like the demonstrations we saw in 1966 and 1967, mainly on college campuses, when students and anti-draft protesters organized massive protests against the Vietnam war. President Johnson was accused of lying about his reasons for taking the country to war and his seeming inability to bring it to an end.

George Bush finds himself in political trouble at home because of continuing American casualties and the Pentagon's failure to train Iraqis quickly enough to assume major responsibility for the country's security. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is especially vulnerable to criticism because he assured Congress before the March 2003 invasion that pacifying and rebuilding Iraq would be relatively easy and that U.S. troops could start withdrawing later that year. Reality has proved him stunningly wrong.

However, there are major differences between Vietnam in 1967 and Iraq today. Here are four of them:

* The most important is the all-volunteer military now in effect, in contrast to the controversial military draft in the 1960s. At that time most young men who were not in college when they turned 18 were liable to being drafted and sent to Vietnam. This factor accounted for the virulent antiwar protests on major American campuses.

* A second difference is the size of U.S. forces in Iraq compared with Vietnam. In 1967 the Pentagon had nearly 500,000 troops in Vietnam; in Iraq there are currently 138,000. Unlike 1967, when President Johnson put no limit on the number of troops he was willing to commit to Vietnam, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have opposed additional troops for Iraq unless U.S. commanders request them. Military commanders say the force in Iraq is sufficient.

* In Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China provided a steady stream of supplies and equipment to North Vietnam's organized units fighting in South Vietnam. In Iraq, several thousand insurgents, some of them foreign fighters, employ terrorist bombings and harassment against American and British troops, as well as the local population. Although the Syrian border is an infiltration route for foreign fighters, no major power provides large quantities of military equipment to the insurgents. Iran, however, is accused of recently supplying more lethal bombs.

* An urgent program to train and equip the Iraqi army and police force started soon after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. This process will, hopefully, be successful early in 2006, when a permanent government takes office and Iraqi forces take on the major responsibility for maintaining peace. In contrast, President Johnson's "Vietnamization" training program didn't start in earnest until spring 1968. By then the Vietnam war was already lost.

The reality of the situation in Iraq is that, unlike in Vietnam, U.S. troops cannot be defeated by the insurgents who don't have the fire power or large great power support to prevail. Also, there is no evidence that Iraqis approve of the objectives of the insurgents. In Vietnam, Vietcong insurgents had wide public support.

Al Qaeda leaders hope to break the will of the American and British publics by casting doubt on Bush's and Blair's ability to stop the allies' casualties. The London bombings were intended by Al Qaeda to force Tony Blair's government from office, but his political position seems to have strengthened since the attacks. All major parties in parliament oppose Britain's withdrawal from Iraq, even though anti-war sentiment in Blair's Labour Party is growing.

While congressional Republicans still support Bush on the war, some Democrats toy with the view of Democratic Party Chairman, Howard Dean, to launch a campaign against "Bush's war." A strong showing by Democrat Paul Hackett in a special Ohio election recently encouraged some Democrats to test the waters on calling for early troop withdrawals.

There seems to be a rule in American politics that presidents who take the country to war for limited objectives need to end the conflict within about three years, or risk losing the next election. This happened to Harry Truman in the Korean War in 1952, and to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam in 1968, when their party lost the presidency because of strong public opposition to the war.

If this is a precedent for Iraq, next March-April will mark a tipping point for George Bush to start withdrawing U.S. troops. Unless he shows real progress by summer in turning over the major security job to the Iraqi government, Republicans risk losing key Senate seats, and perhaps even their House majority in the fall 2006 elections.

Will Iraq's leadership be united enough and tough enough to take on the insurgents by themselves? It's not likely, in my view. But by mid-2006 Iraq should be able to show enough progress to enable Bush to reduce U.S. forces by half. That should help his party in November.

File last modified on Saturday, 20-AUGUST-2005 12:21 PM EST

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