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History Haunts Bush and Kerry

Both parties and candidates are engaged in a tricky contest of patriotism and memory.

August 29, 2004|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush."

WASHINGTON — Few assumptions are more precarious for Democrats than the one that November's presidential election is John F. Kerry's to lose.

President Bush does have a spotty economy that is weak in job creation, a botched war in Iraq and an average approval rating around 50%, negatives that normally signal defeat for an incumbent. Short of a new terrorist attack, all this gives Democrats some basis for optimism.

Still, as the Republican convention opens this week in New York City, a site chosen to resurrect the psychologies and applause lines of the months after Sept. 11, both parties and candidates are engaged in a high-stakes and tricky contest of patriotism and memory. Not only what happened three years ago is involved, but also what both contenders were doing -- or lying about or shirking -- some three decades ago in the Vietnam era.

With Iraq and terrorism combining into a potent national security issue destined to dominate the election debate, both Kerry and Bush face close scrutiny of their military and patriotic outlooks during the Vietnam years, and both are at risk. Slowly, Vietnam and the two U.S.-led wars in Iraq have blended into a linkage of foreign-policy and national-security errors that has drained U.S. credibility and prestige.

After the triumph of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed to the American public that the "Vietnam syndrome" -- the lingering national trauma of military embarrassment in Indochina -- had been wiped away and "buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula." Alas, his boast was premature because Saddam Hussein survived in power. Twelve years later, son George W. captured Hussein but, as had his father, mishandled the larger challenge by miring the U.S. in a stubborn Iraqi insurgency and the country's seemingly intractable ethnic politics.

These mistakes have already resurrected some of the terminology of Vietnam -- "White House deception," "quagmire," "civil war." Unfortunately, international anger, especially in the Middle East, at the U.S. presence in Iraq has also rekindled a second discussion: How Muslim fundamentalist outrage over the arrival of U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula, with its holy Islamic sites, in the 1990-'91 war was a cause of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center.

Taken together, U.S. blunders in Iraq and the undiminished threat of Islamic terrorism in the United States have merged into a national-security concern that should dominate the presidential election.

No other issue is as important, including the economy and Iraq as an example of war mismanagement by a U.S. president. Clearly, though, the economy is a problem for Bush's reelection. It exhibits many of the same weaknesses -- huge domestic and international deficits, job losses, wage stagnation, high family debt and a growing gap between the rich and the middle class -- that spoiled his father's hope of a second term. Besides oil prices, there is a second yardstick by which the son's economic record is worse than the father's. George W. looks to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over four years of net job losses.

As for the poorly thought-out invasion of Iraq, a cavalcade of conservative commentators and politicians have lately come forth to call the decision a fundamental mistake. Two stand out. One is Pat Buchanan, an old GOP foe of both Bushes. In his new book, "Where the Right Went Wrong," he that "listening to the neoconservatives, Bush invaded Iraq, united the Arab world against us, isolated us from Europe, and fulfilled to the letter [Osama] bin Laden's prophecy as to what we were about. We won the war in three weeks -- and we may have lost the Islamic world for a generation." The other is retiring Nebraska Rep. Doug Bereuter, the Republican vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In a letter to his constituents, he wrote that, "it was a mistake to launch ... military action [against Iraq]" and that America's "reputation around the world has never been lower."

Although Bush stands by his decision to invade Iraq, he told the New York Times last week that he made a "miscalculation of what the conditions would be" after the war ended.

All of which further frames the extraordinary importance of U.S. military involvement with Iraq and the Persian Gulf during the last 25-plus years. Two episodes in the 1980s -- the Iran-Contra affair and George H.W. Bush's helping hand in building up Hussein's military machine -- began the involvement. Then, in 1992, independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot accused the elder Bush of having given Hussein a "green light" to invade Kuwait in August 1990. Remember, it was to counter Hussein that Bush pressured Saudi Arabia leaders into accepting U.S. troops on their land.

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