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ISG Prescribes Vietnam All Over Again

By Dennis Byrne

"...[Y]ou have my assurance of continued assistance in the post-settlement period and that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam."

That was a pledge by President Richard M. Nixon to Republic of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would not abandon his nation, if he would only cooperate in negotiations with North Vietnam to end the war.

Nixon's word wasn't worth crap.

Nor, obviously, is our word to the Iraqi people, if the Iraqi Study Group has its way. We betrayed millions of people by abandoning our principles and trashing our promises when we stood by--willingly and intentionally--as South Vietnam fell to the tyranny of North Vietnam. Now, as the ISG provides us with intellectual cover for weaseling our way out of Iraq, we're about to do the same to the Iraqi people.

Let us review history, which we appear condemned to repeat:

In 1972, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, declaring "peace was at end," was in Paris selling out our South Vietnamese allies. Thieu refused to accept the proposed "peace" accords because, in part, it left North Vietnam in control of a chunk of South Vietnam. With the help of Kissinger's line and U.S. force levels down to 27,000, Nixon won re-election and proceeded to threaten Thieu with the elimination of all U.S. aid if he didn't agree. Thieu did so reluctantly. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973 America got its prisoners of war back, carried out a unilateral withdrawal of all its troops and declared the war was over. Kissinger got his Nobel Peace Prize. South Vietnam got the shaft.

Oh, sure, the accords supposedly created a multi-national, 1,160-man International Control Commission force to oversee the cease-fire and ensure that both sides kept control of their respective territories. There was lofty language about both sides working toward a compromise political solution, and even re-unification. But the cease-fire quickly collapsed, the U.S. came up with only half of its promised economic aid and North Vietnam marched deeper into South Vietnam. Finally, in 1974, a Democratic Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, cutting off all military aid to South Vietnam. Emboldened by the fact that the U.S. never made a pretence of fulfilling its promises to "respond with full force" against ever increasing and more serious North Vietnamese violations of the accords, South Vietnam was about to be overrun.

U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin futilely pleaded for $700 million in emergency aid, so on April 30, Saigon fell. Left behind were the shameful images of our friends pleading for their lives at the gates of the U.S. embassy as the last helicopter flew from its roof. A few days before, Thieu had resigned, bitterly recalling the failed pledge of "severe retaliatory action" by the U.S. With condemnation on his lips, he said "The United States has not respected its promises. It is inhumane. It is untrustworthy. It is irresponsible."

How memory fades in the face of such a dishonorable betrayal. Now to call it an abandonment or betrayal, as I did in a Chicago Tribune column, incites charges (here and here) that I am re-writing history. To try to make what we did in Vietnam anything other than an abandonment is to dishonestly read history through a clouded ideological lens. The history of our disgrace couldn't be clearer, but present-day attempts to turn the history of those infamous years into fantasy shouldn't be surprising in a country that deified men who ran to Canada to betray their obligations of citizenship and denounced those who served honorably.

At least the Iraq Study Group hasn't asked Iraqis to believe the same kind of outright lie that Nixon told the Vietnamese. No, the ISG's lie is much subtler. First, the group asks us to believe that Iran, America's most implacable foe, would negotiate in good faith, be true to its word and do us a gigantic favor of facilitating our graceful and face-saving exit from Iraq. Only fools would believe such things could happen and the ISG members are no fools.

Second, the ISG never gets around to saying what the U.S. should do if the negotiations fail. It puts Iraq's constitutionally elected government in a Thieu-like spot: accept whatever Iran and the region's parties work out for them. Think about it. The ISG wants to give a role in determining Iraq's future to a country it fought a bloody war against involving the use of chemical weapons, which has a hand in causing today's turmoil and which has no commitment to freedom, self-determination and democracy. Without resolute American backing, the Iraqi people are being thrown to wolves fighting over a juicy carcass. In these unfavorable circumstances, the ISG expects Iraq to take control of its own fate.

Left unsaid is what the American goal should be in any negotiations. In its absence, we're left to assume that only thing the ISG wants for us is our departure. Honorable or not, it makes no difference to the ISG.

Seeking a justification for abandoning what we started is not unprecedented. As the last of South Vietnam was falling, President Gerald Ford was speaking at Tulane University. Aside from making a promise to make America "independent of foreign energy sources by 1985," Ford unbelievably sought to find a shred of dignity in the American betrayal by citing Abraham Lincoln:

"What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?" Lincoln asked. "It is not our frowning battlements or bristling seacoast, our Army or our Navy. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. [emphasis added]"

Like today, Ford's hypocrisy is a measure of just how far some in America are willing to go to go blind to the demands of freedom, in all lands.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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