Iraq: Shades of the 1968 Tet Offensive?


WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct 18, 2006 — -- Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, is less cautious than some of his predecessors in the Bush White House.

Possibly because of his experience in the live give-and-take of a talk-show host, Snow is more likely to respond off-the-cuff than look at his prepared talking points.

Still, heads turned this morning when he offered an opinion of an op-ed column by Tom Friedman.

Writing in today's New York Times, Friedman suggested that the current violence in Iraq was "the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive."

As Friedman did, we should take time out here for younger readers who may not have heard of Tet.

It was a series of attacks launched in what was then South Vietnam by communist forces.

They lasted almost a year and a half, ending in June 1969.

American forces said that the communists suffered a devastating military defeat. And most historians agree. But that was not the way Americans at home viewed it.

They sat in their living rooms watching shocking pictures of communist troops deep inside the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. The troops even penetrated the grounds of the U.S. Embassy.

After the Tet offensive began, support for the Vietnam War declined -- and so did support for President Johnson.

Two months after the start of the offensive, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

Today, historians regard Tet as a major turning point in the Vietnam War.

Which brings us back to Snow's remark about Friedman's column: "I think Friedman may be right, but we'll have to see."

This may be one of those occasions when, on reflection, Snow may backtrack on his comments. He has done that before, saying he was mistaken.

But for now, the president's spokesman seems to be saying that the present carnage in Iraq could be a pivotal psychological victory for the terrorists.

Actually, Snow just went one step beyond what many in the administration have long said: The pictures of death and dismemberment on the evening news have had a devastating effect on public support for the president's Iraq policy.

The difference now may be a qualitative one.

As Friedman wrote, "Total U.S. troop deaths in Iraq this month have reached at least 53, putting October on a path to be the third deadliest month of the entire war for the U.S. military. Iraqis are being killed at a rate of 100 per day now."

Although Snow had a surprisingly positive response to Friedman -- the Bush White House rarely agrees with anything in The New York Times' editorial pages -- he had nothing positive to say about a suggestion from an old Bush ally and fellow Texan, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Speaking to the Dallas Morning News' editorial board, she "described the situation in Iraq as 'chaos' and said ... it's time to consider splitting the country into semiautonomous regions, an approach she said would boost stability but also require more American troops."

Despite her close relationship with Bush, she is not spouting the White House line.

Snow said that the president had already examined that option, and that he was convinced it would fail.

In Vietnam, unlike Iraq, the United States fought to maintain partition between North and South. The United States failed. Now Bush is trying to prevent Iraq from breaking into pieces.

There are many differences between the American experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. And too often, analogies are made that prove facile and inaccurate.

But, like President Johnson, Bush is captive to what the American public sees, hears and reads about the level of violence.

And that is why some suggest we go back and look at that long ago Tet offensive in South Vietnam, a country that the United States could not save.

As for Tony Snow, he has now tried to halt any comparisons between his boss and Lyndon Johnson.

Asked several hours later to clarify his remarks, Snow said he does not believe that a Tet-like offensive will have the same result this time. The difference, he said, is that "Johnson ... had uncertainty and the White House was not projecting a sense of confidence." Snow said today "you have a president who is determined to win and there isn't going to be any dampening of the will."

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