Don't ignore Vietnam's lessons for Iraq

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2007, 12:00am

Cries for a deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq conjure bitter memories. I was a young reporter in Vietnam on April 30, 1970, when US president Richard Nixon ordered American troops across the border into Cambodia. I jumped into a helicopter for a ride into Cambodia on the first day, then flew back on the same helicopter an hour or so later to file my story. The next day, I rode with US troops on an armoured personnel carrier, then made my way on the back seat of a motorcycle to the capital, Phnom Penh.

Those were heady days. The tide of the war was turning, and US forces were no longer hamstrung by bureaucratic nonsense from Washington that had kept them from overrunning North Vietnamese base areas just across the border.

But wait. The story was not over. So great was anti-war pressure across the US that Nixon, soon after announcing the foray into the communist base areas, placed a strict limit on how long US troops would spend in Cambodia - no more than 60 days. Nor would they go much beyond the Ho Chi Minh trail network, down which Hanoi had been sending supplies for years.

That wasn't all. Just to pin down US forces still more tightly, our Congress passed the Cooper-Church amendment, barring military operations inside Cambodia as a condition for passing the military budget. The North Vietnamese suffered devastating blows while US troops were there, but had plenty of time to regroup and mount a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam two years later. They were again thrown back, only to recover and return one last time in the winter and spring of 1975 when all US troops had gone.

Now Congress is playing the same game. Forgetting the lesson of 1970, the House and Senate want to set a limit on the duration of US military operations inside Iraq. You don't have to be a card-carrying conservative or a Republican to recognise this bid for legislative command of the armed forces as not just political folly but a betrayal of our troops. We are not going to win a war, or get out with any semblance of honour by telling our enemy: 'Just lie low for a while, and next month or next year we'll be gone.'

We lost in Vietnam as a result of anti-war opposition in the US: we had to fight a 'limited war'. An overwhelmingly anti-war press bayed in unison when US forces were revealed to have conducted 'secret' bombing missions over the jungles of Laos and Cambodia.

The bombing of base areas and supply routes through North Vietnam was carefully manipulated by bombing 'halts' in which the North Vietnamese were supposed to sigh in gratitude and come to terms, knowing the horrific fate that awaited them if the bombing resumed. There was no way this strategy could work, of course: no way to win that - or any - war without going into the enemy heartland with infantry troops on the ground.

US Senator John McCain is right when he says it's elementary not to place a deadline on our military commitment to Iraq, just as it was to pull out of Cambodia by the 60-day deadline or to call bombing halts in negotiations that could only end in failure.

If we think the war in Iraq is bad now, there's no telling how much worse it will get if Congress is free to hamstring our armed forces. The most likely scenario is that Sunnis, Shiites and others will go on killing each other in ever-rising numbers until another bloodthirsty strongman rises and imposes his own cruel peace.

If the critics think that's okay, as long as the slaughter is confined to Iraq, what about the consequences for the whole Middle East? The critics, in their eagerness to thrash the Bush administration, forget the dangers of an artificial time limit that will guarantee defeat - and much greater dangers for those we leave behind.

Donald Kirk spent nearly a decade as a correspondent in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, covered the first Gulf war from Baghdad and reported again from Baghdad in 2004