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Who's spinning whom on Vietnam analogy?

October 21, 2006|TIM RUTTEN

TO play American politics, you've got to be able to spin a story. What separates the major league pitching from the minor league stuff in this game is backspin -- that unseen twist that sends the story in an unexpected but advantageous direction as it whirls through the news cycle.

Confronted with another week of appalling casualties in Iraq, plummeting public support for the war and with the midterm elections just weeks away, President Bush put on a fairly nifty exhibition of professional quality backspin this week, all the more so because almost nobody got it at the time.

During a televised interview Wednesday, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Bush what he thought of a newspaper column comparing the upsurge in insurgent attacks during the ongoing Ramadan holidays with the communist forces' 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. The president mused that the analogy "could be right."

He went on to say that "there's certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election.... My gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we would leave."

Half a world away and 48 hours later, the key sentence in the president's response received a strong second, when reporters received an unusually candid briefing on the failure of current U.S. efforts to secure something like a reasonably stable situation in Baghdad. Speaking for the American military commanders in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV -- who formerly led the 82nd Airborne -- told reporters that "it's no coincidence that the surge in attacks against coalition forces and the subsequent increase in U.S. casualties coincide with our increased presence in the streets of Baghdad and the run-up to the American midterm elections. The enemy knows that killing innocent people and Americans will garner headlines and create a sense of frustration."

Many commentators critical of the war rushed in after Bush's initial remarks to describe them as a rare admission of error. In fact, they were nothing of the kind. In classic reverse spin, the president was sending two messages -- one designed to rally a key component of the Republicans' electoral base, the other a warning shot across the bow of the American news media as they weigh their reports on the bloody events in the shadow of what is shaping up as a critical congressional election.

To understand just how Bush spun this particular pitch, you have to recall that Tet occupies a particular prominence among the revisionist lessons drawn from the Vietnam debacle by the GOP's neoconservative wing. In recent months, many neocons have become increasingly dispirited and, more important, critical of the Defense Department's conduct of the war in Iraq. They're the troops the president hoped to rally by subtly reminding them of their long-held belief that the war in Southeast Asia was lost because, in their view, the American press corps became a functional fifth column after the Tet offensive.

Even a casual look around the conservative press and the right-wing recesses of the blogosphere this week demonstrated that Bush had the measure of this part of his intended audience.

The New York Sun's Daniel Freedman, for example, wrote that Iraq is not "like Vietnam as the antiwar movement likes to say -- i.e. a failure.... The reality is America only lost [in Southeast Asia] because the political leadership lost the resolve to back the troops.... The crucial part now is to ensure American troops aren't abandoned as in Vietnam."

One influential pro-war blogger wrote that "when President Bush 'accepts' the analogy of the surge in violence in Iraq to the Tet offensive in Vietnam, he is not 'accepting' that Iraq is an unwinnable struggle against a noble enemy. He is saying that victory or defeat in Iraq will not be a function of the amount of violence that the enemy is able to do during any given period but our will to keep fighting notwithstanding that violence. In that one regard, Iraq is dangerously similar to Vietnam, which fact the mainstream media would know if the typical editor read military history instead of the journalism pretending to be history that fills the bestseller lists."

To this commentator, the real history goes like this: "At the time the media perceived and promoted the Tet offensive as a great victory for the enemy. In an age when the network anchors deployed truly awesome power, Walter Cronkite destroyed Lyndon Johnson's chances for reelection when he editorialized that we were 'mired in stalemate.'

"President Johnson declared, 'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America,' and withdrew from the 1968 presidential campaign."

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