Commentary

A True Parallel between Vietnam, Iraq: Vitriol

A few days ago, I received a letter from Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, soliciting a contribution for the GOP’s 2008 election campaign. Given the objective, the stridently partisan tone of the letter came as no surprise. What did come as a surprise was the sheer viciousness of the language.

According to Duncan, the “Democratic leadership believes failure by our troops in Iraq — the central front in the War on Terror — is essential for them to win elections in 2008.” He charged that “any sign of progress in Iraq is simply a ‘problem’ for them.” Lest anyone miss the point, he added, “It is unconscionable that Democrat leaders are hoping for our troops to fail so their party can gain a political advantage.”

Impugning the patriotism of one’s political opponents in such a crude fashion is beyond reprehensible. Duncan apparently cannot imagine that Democratic critics of the Iraq war might embrace that position because of an honestly believe that the policy is misguided. No, according to his worldview, they would be willing to sacrifice America’s safety and well being for sleazy partisan advantage.

Unfortunately, Duncan’s slur is not an aberration. Increasingly, both sides in the debate on the Iraq war slime the motives of their opponents, and that tactic is poisoning the political discourse.

Even a casual perusal of the op-ed pages in conservative publications finds repeated allegations that war critics are unpatriotic and even “pro-terrorist.”

Looking at MoveOn.org and other liberal outlets finds a comparable number of allegations that Bush “lied” America into war, and that the principal reason the United States is in Iraq is to control the oil supply. The “no blood for oil” slogan popular among leftists succinctly captures that attitude.

Just as many conservatives cannot grasp that opponents of the war may have legitimate motives for their position, many liberals seem incapable of considering the possibility that the Bush administration went into Iraq out of honest concerns about security issues, with the sincere goal of establishing a stable democracy in that country.

One might justifiably question the administration’s judgment on those issues, but that is a far cry from assuming the stated goals were merely a cynical cover for nefarious objectives.

In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in late August, President Bush invoked the Vietnam analogy with regard to Iraq. The way he used that analogy was strained, but there is one disturbing parallel with the Vietnam era that he should have mentioned. At that time as well, the policy debate turned vicious and personal, generating far more heat than light. The rival positions became portrayed as caricatures: fascist baby burners vs. dirty hippie communist sympathizers. We are seeing a similar degeneration of the debate on Iraq today.

That is more than a little disappointing. America should be a sufficiently mature democracy that difficult foreign policy debates can be conducted in a more constructive manner than having dueling accusations of treason and war crimes. The Iraq war is an agonizingly difficult problem with no pain-free solutions. We need to consider our options carefully and choose the best (or perhaps more accurately, the least bad) one. We are not going to be able to do that if we are merely screaming epithets at one another.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.