Many supporters of the Iraq War are already preparing to blame the Democrats for “losing” the war. For these supporters the primary lesson of Vietnam appears to be that we would’ve won if only we had “stayed the course”: this despite a decade of heavy fighting which killed 2-3 million Vietnamese, left a rural peasant economy drenched in napalm and Agent Orange, took more ordinance than was dropped in all of World War II and cost over 58,000 American lives plus hundreds of thousands wounded, most of whom were supplied via a draft that fell disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged.
This same reasoning is now being applied to Iraq. After almost five years of heavy fighting that shows no clear sign of abatement, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of American casualties*, we are once again being implored to remain steadfast and see the conflict through until we are “victorious”. And once again, as the narrative goes, the only obstacle to our eventual success are the Democrats, who want to draw down forces before the job is done.
I was born at the height of the Vietnam War. I’m too young to remember the political dynamics that played out in the seventies and eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the supposed conservative ascendancy. Today many people suggest that the Democrats risk the same fate as they did 40 years ago, when their credibility on national security evaporated, if they force a withdrawal from Iraq and the situation gets even worse.
I do not think this scenario is likely to transpire, mainly because I do not think the parallels between the Vietnam era and today really hold up. The sixties were marked by enormous cultural changes (e.g., the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, increases in teenage drug use and sexual promiscuity) that came to be associated with the Democratic Party, and against which many Americans ultimately wearied of and rebelled against. It’s now 2007 and society has advanced dramatically; today it is the GOP’s perverse and hypocritical moralizing on social issues that is out of step with the rest of the country. In addition the only Democratic president in the seventies was Jimmy Carter, who was easily caricatured as a peacenik. Today all of the first and second tier potential Democratic presidential nominees have gone out of their way to portray themselves as tough on national security.
None of this is to suggest that the Democrats do not have their work cut out for them. Even if America elects a Democratic president in 2008, he or she will face the daunting and delicate task of somehow extricating the United States from Iraq and will have to take responsibility for the outcome. Given how badly the war has been managed I suspect that the American people will grant a Democratic president a great degree of leeway when things (as likely) become chaotic and messy. No one expects Iraq to become tranquil overnight or a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon.
It seems to me that Americans are more sophisticated and reasonable than the war’s major supporters, who talk of “victory” as if it were some abstract concept devoid of costs and benefits: as if “victory” were something that we could simply will into being if only we stick it out. The public understands that there are many pressing issues, both domestically and abroad, and that it is time that the Iraq War no longer be the primary focus of so much energy and national resources.
Unfortunately, our fates will be entangled with Iraq’s for a very long time, but I believe that Americans will cut the Democrats some slack even if things get worse before they get better.
As long as Democratic leaders offer a comprehensive vision of how to make America safer and more prosperous, and devote sufficient resources to the task, both political and financial, I think the political fallout of withdrawing from Iraq can be minimized.
*Total U.S. casualties are over 30,000: 3790 dead and 27,004 wounded.