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Stay Out of Vietnam Minefield

By Ruben Navarrette

You just can't please some people. After the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I remember a cartoon that lampooned Democrats for their two-faced approach to the conflict. In the first panel, a donkey was scolding President George H.W. Bush for invading Iraq. In the next, the donkey was scolding the president for leaving too soon.

Today, the Democrats' strategy is still fairly consistent with that model. They wait to see what President George W. Bush says, and then they say the opposite. Oddly enough, this happens even if Bush says something that Democrats have been saying for some time.

Such as comparing Iraq to Vietnam. War critics have drawn that comparison almost since the invasion of Iraq began, calling the U.S.-led operation a "quagmire" and insisting that Bush was ignoring the lessons of history. But people seem to draw their own lessons from Vietnam. And recently, after months of resisting the comparison, Bush actually embraced it. During a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he seemed to imply that the real lesson from Vietnam was that defeat comes at a heavy price.

The president was making two points, both legitimate. First, he insisted that Americans need to think long and hard about what would happen to those we left behind if we departed Iraq before stability takes hold, because what happened after the fall of Saigon wasn't pretty.

"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam," he said, "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.'"

Second, Bush believes that our withdrawal from Vietnam actually emboldens our new enemies, all these years later.

"There's another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam," he said, "and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today's struggle -- those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001." Bush then quoted al-Qaida leaders pointing to the U.S. retreat from Vietnam as proof that America could be defeated -- once there was an erosion of public support in the United States.

"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility," he said, "But the terrorists see it differently. We must listen to the words of the enemy."

You would think that Democrats would be flattered that the president seems to have come around to their point of view. But, instead, their instinct was to flip their position and insist that Bush is wrong and that the two wars cannot be compared. In Vietnam, they say, we battled an insurgency and a communist government in the North; in Iraq, we're refereeing a civil war. All some Bush critics care about is seizing the opportunity to disagree with the president that they're willing to swallow their own words to do it.

There may be another reason that Democrats are feeling combative: Bush's words remind voters that Democrats don't have a good answer for the question of what happens to those Iraqis we would leave behind. I've watched nearly every Democratic presidential debate, and I've never heard a single candidate even broach the subject.

I will. One thing that should happen is that the United States should dramatically increase its visa allotment for Iraqis, so that more can escape that war zone once U.S. troops are gone.

Still, invoking Vietnam was obviously not a smart move for Bush. Americans know that the president spent the war stateside in the Texas Air National Guard. So most people just tuned out, and Bush's remarks became little more than a late-night TV punchline. He should have stayed out of the Vietnam minefield altogether.

And so should we all. We should eliminate the "V-word" from our political vocabulary. As a member of Generation X who was born eight months before the Tet Offensive in 1968, I'm tired of hearing about this conflict. I felt that way before the Sept. 11 attacks, but I have even less patience for the discussion now. Why should Americans waste time arguing over the lessons of a war that ended in the 1970s, when we're at war with a new enemy right now?

It's time to let these ghosts rest. And for that to happen, our leaders need to quit waking them.

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 Ruben Navarrette
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