The President's Surprising Rationale for the Iraq War: Vietnam

With his approval rating at a new low of 29 percent, his most trusted political adviser gone, and U.S. troops in Iraq suffering the worst helicopter disaster since 2005, it's not surprising that President Bush might try to boost support for his Iraq policy by turning to the rhetoric of a past wartime president. But who would guess that he'd choose President Nixon?

Addressing a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., Bush invoked the bloody aftermath of the Vietnam War, saying the United States must stay the course in Iraq or suffer the humiliation of defeat and the guilt of abandoning our allies.

By drawing parallels to Vietnam, many observers were left to wonder why the president would point to America's least successful and least popular war ever as justification for continued fighting in Iraq. His audience seemed to back him up.

Despite the popularity of the speech and the Iraq War in that hall, criticism quickly followed the president's remarks, with historians, veterans and politicians drawing their own parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and questioning not only the president's understanding of history but his motives for bringing up what remains a controversial and painful subject in many American homes.

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush told the Missouri VFW members. "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.'"

"Then as now, people argued that the real problem was America's presence, and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end," Bush said. "The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be," he added.

The president often references history when urging patience on Iraq. Much of his speech Wednesday compared early criticism of U.S. intervention in Japan and Korea with criticism of the war in Iraq, but he has made a point in the past not to equate Iraq and Vietnam too much.

In 2004, Bush criticized those who would compare the wars with one another, saying, "I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It's hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation's interest."

Bush avoided comparison with Vietnam for two reasons, said Thomas Biersteker, a professor of international relations at Brown University and a Vietnam War expert.

"He chose to distance himself from Vietnam because of his own lack of involvement and because Vietnam is generally not considered a resounding success in popular memory. It is striking that he has begun to rely on arguments strikingly similar to those of Richard Nixon," Biersteker told

Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., a Vietnam veteran and staunch critic of the Iraq War, also noted that much of the President Bush's rhetoric echoed the language of Nixon in the late 1960s, who called on Americans to be patient after almost a decade of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

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