KANSAS CITY, MO. — Critics of the war in Iraq who compare the conflict to Vietnam have the analogy backward, President Bush plans to tell veterans in a speech today.
In what the White House is billing as a major foreign policy address, the president will say that the lessons of Vietnam teach that the U.S. should stay in Iraq, not withdraw. Terrorists cite Vietnam to predict that the United States will run from the Iraq war, he will say.
"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility -- but the terrorists see things differently," Bush plans to tell a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, according to speech excerpts released late Tuesday by the White House.
Bush will argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam had dire consequences for the people in that region and so would a withdrawal from Iraq.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush will say. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.' "
The release of the lengthy excerpts was an unusual move by the White House, which rarely provides advance text of presidential addresses. It was also unusual because Bush has tended to steer clear of analogies to Vietnam, widely considered an unwinnable quagmire that critics have increasingly compared to the Iraq war.
White House counselor Ed Gillespie said today's speech would be the first of two designed to lay the rhetorical groundwork for a mid-September progress report Congress had demanded as part of the debate over whether and how to continue funding military operations in Iraq.
"As we face challenges in Iraq today, we do so knowing we have done this kind of transformative work before, and the benefits to America made the sacrifices worthwhile," Gillespie said in a statement explaining the early release of the speech excerpts.
Today's speech will stress how the U.S. "perseverance in Asia led to a freer, more stable, and more prosperous continent," Gillespie said. On Tuesday, in a speech to the American Legion, the president is to address the importance of Iraq to the future of the Middle East.
White House officials were traveling with the president from Canada to Kansas City, Mo., and were not available for comment.
In today's speech, Bush will compare the occupation of Iraq to that of Japan after World War II and the continued defense of South Korea, arguing that they are similar "ideological struggles." He will say that the U.S. presence in Iraq will help bring democracy and prosperity to the Middle East, as it did in Asia.
"Prevailing in this struggle is essential to our future as a nation," the president will argue, according to the excerpts. "The question now before us comes down to this: Will today's generation of Americans resist the deceptive allure of retreat -- and do in the Middle East what veterans in this room did in Asia?"
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Bush's speech, saying the president "continues to play the American people for fools."
"The only relevant analogy of Vietnam to Iraq is this: In Iraq, just as we did in Vietnam, we are clinging to a central government that does not and will not enjoy the support of the people," he said. "Unless the president acts on that lesson from history and works toward a federal solution in Iraq, there is no prospect that when we leave, we will leave anything stable behind.
"In fact, the president's policies are pushing us toward another Saigon moment -- with helicopters fleeing the roof of our embassy -- which he says he wants to avoid.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq didn't exist before we invaded. It is a Bush fulfilling prophecy," he added.
Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.
"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.
"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued. "We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It's a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out."
Bush has long compared the Iraq war to World War II. In a 2004 speech at the Air Force Academy, he said, "Like other totalitarian movements, the terrorists seek to impose a grim vision in which dissent is crushed, and every man and woman must think and live in colorless conformity."
Bush has usually sidestepped comparisons of Iraq and Vietnam. When he has mentioned Vietnam, he usually emphasizes that the conflicts are dissimilar.
Reynolds reported from Washington, Gerstenzang from Kansas City, Mo., and Montebello, Canada.