Friday, February 8, 2008

Lessons from Vietnam

With all the talk of possible firsts in the 2008 Presidential race -- would the first woman, black, or (until yesterday) Mormon be elected to America's highest office? -- one other potential breakthrough has been overlooked. If John McCain secures the Republican nomination and wins in November, he will be the first Vietnam veteran to be elected President of the United States.

This would be an extraordinary development. McCain's experience in Vietnam would help bring closure to America's role in that misunderstood conflict. It would also have important ramifications in regard to America's current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States remains divided and confused about a war in which it lost more than 58,000 lives. Despite never losing a single battle -- including the famed Tet Offensive, whose 40th anniversary is being marked this month-- there can be no doubt that America lost the Vietnam War. The received wisdom has long had it that the United States should never have gone in and was right to get out.

But, as a Navy pilot and POW during Vietnam, McCain's perspective is different. He continues to believe that the fight to stop the spread of communism was justified, and the history of that region proves him right.

The pitiful scene of America's allies reaching for helicopters as Saigon fell was only the beginning.

When the Democratic U.S. Congress of 1975 insisted on starving the government of South Vietnam of support, it led to the massacre of millions of innocent people across Southeast Asia. Moreover, it made America appear to the world as an unreliable ally. It has taken a generation for that image to be repaired. As local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan risk their lives in siding with the United States against terrorist insurgents, a President Mc-Cain could be expected to honour the lesson of Vietnam and not abandon America's friends to their fate.

Critics of the Iraq war often characterize the conflict as "another Vietnam." They are right -- but for the wrong reasons. What the wars have in common is not that both were/are unwinnable quagmires, but that, in both cases, U.S. war planners underestimated the enemy, and were too impatient to get out. The so-called "Rumsfeld Strategy" in Iraq -- against which McCain inveighed from the outset -- prioritized technology and speed over numbers, and thereby provided too few troops to secure the peace. It was only last year, when George W. Bush implemented a "surge" strategy that boosted troop levels by 20,000, that sustained progress was made. This vindicates McCain, a military man who loudly and consistently championed a much larger invasion force as far back as 2003.

Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all represent regional conflicts fought against global foes. In the case of Vietnam, the larger enemy was Chinese-and Soviet-sponsored communism; in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worldwide Islamic terror. The United States needs a president who understands that losing this struggle would be as disastrous as losing the Cold War would have been.

To be sure, McCain has made many missteps in his long career. The 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation and the 2007 McCain-Kennedy immigration bill were affronts to freedom of speech and the rule of law, respectively. But from a foreign policy perspective, McCain is a formidable candidate. If he becomes President, we can expect that he will apply the lessons of Cold War history -- lessons that, unlike any presidential predecessor, he learned first-hand in Vietnam.