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The Vietnam Syndrome : Why is Bush Hurting if There is No War?

November 25, 1990|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)

WASHINGTON — Cynical cartoonists are already beginning to redraw the deserts of Saudi Arabia into the ominous Indochinese landscape of rice paddies and water buffaloes. A few have awarded George Bush the six-guns and cowboy boots of Lyndon B. Johnson--just another ego-driven Texas President who's all hat and no victory.

Well, not necessarily. Not yet. There is the oil factor and other differences between Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. But the comparison does have an incipient validity in light of Bush's recent troop escalation, rising criticism in Congress and increasingly negative opinion polls. By these yardsticks, public disillusionment with U.S. Persian Gulf involvement is developing at an unnerving, faster-then-in-Vietnam pace. If shooting does break out--and maybe even if it doesn't--events in the gulf could resonant throughout the 1992 election year. Politics doesn't stop at the water's edge any more than beach sand does.

For now, at least, if things go wrong, it' Republicans who are at risk. During the 20th Century, the party in the White House has paid the political price for inept military policies or naive wartime diplomacy--after World War I, World War II, Korea and, of course, Vietnam. Moreover, mid-November poll measurements already show support for Bush's handling of the Iraq crisis sinking into the 51%-59% range, down from August and September highs of 78%-82%. It took Johnson several years in Vietnam--and thousands of casualties--to fall that far.

It's becoming a truism that part of this reflects Bush's failure to adequately define U.S. goals and strategies in the gulf. The confusion, however, also stems from unacknowledged politics. Back in August, the White House saw challenging Iraq as a good idea for a number of reasons: the Panama invasion proved gunboat diplomacy was a ratings booster; the GOP needed a new foreign-policy theme--thus the "New World Order," and the gulf commitment could be used to maintain high defense spending.

Then, just before the election--when the White House was emphasizing the Mideast to shift attention away from the slumping economy--Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III seemed to offer a different explanation for why we were in the gulf each day: sometimes it was jobs, sometimes it was defeating aggression, sometimes because Saddam Hussein was a "second Hitler." To paraphrase the movie title, if it's Tuesday, the reason must be Kuwaiti liberation. By mid-month, several national surveys confirmed Bush receiving only fair or poor marks for defining U.S. objectives, and public support for White House policy in the gulf was "Vietnamized."

Against this backdrop, the Administration's early November announcement of nearly doubling U.S. troop strength in the gulf--clearly displaying offensive rather than defensive intentions--shifted public and congressional nervousness into overdrive. One mid-November survey--that made only vague reference to new troop increases--did find majority support; but the most precise inquiry, by The Times poll, found a 52% to 42% majority opposing an increase of 150,000 that would nearly double U.S. personnel to 400,000. The same poll found 62% of Americans worried that the Persian Gulf crisis could "bog down and become another Vietnam situation."

This resurging Vietnam parallelism may also be a factor in rising public war reluctance. Popular majorities will endorse a variety of Persian Gulf objectives--from getting rid of Hussein to destroying Iraq's chemical warfare and nuclear capacities--if only a limited military involvement is necessary, according to The Times survey. However, no more than a third would support pursuing these goals through a major war--even to save the lives of U.S. hostages. And starting a major war over the status of Kuwait has even less support.

Two disparate national memories are in conflict. Following the easy victories of the 1980s--in Grenada, the air strike against Tripoli and the invasion of Panama--Americans cheer gunboat diplomacy. But the possibility of a lengthy, drawn-out land war is something else again.

Even before the lessons of the Vietnam, U.S. history books documented how Washington hawks always evoked some enemy provocation or attack. Consider: the Spanish-American War followed the blowing up of the battleship Maine; World War I drew on Germany's sinking of U.S. ships and the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany promised Mexico Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for an alliance; World War II needed Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor; the Korean War started after North Korea's invasion across the 38th Parallel. The U.S. escalation in Vietnam took shape after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provoked the congressional resolution that allowed Johnson to commit U.S. troops.

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