The rhetoric of revisionism: presidential rhetoric about the Vietnam War since 9/11.
Because of this haunted legacy, Vietnam has also heavily influenced the political generation that followed, and presidents in particular have had to approach the issue with great care. Although no president served in the war, as Kalb and Kalb have recently observed, Vietnam "had a disproportionate, powerful impact on American presidents, politics, and policy" (2011, 1). All presidents since 1975 have instinctively recoiled from associating their foreign policy initiatives with the disaster of the war in Southeast Asia, yet the pressure for them to address the issues that the war raised remains compelling: in explaining foreign affairs and military interventions in particular, all presidents have had to address the almost inevitable comparisons that reporters and others draw with Vietnam. In short, no commander in chief can escape the Vietnam analogy when he commits troops to an overseas conflict.
When publicly addressing this analogy and the legacies of the war, all presidents since 1975 have therefore faced a rhetorical dilemma. By merely touching upon the topic of Vietnam they almost inevitably draw attention to parallels that have the potential to reduce support for their own foreign policies. So while they have discussed Vietnam in a number of ways that sometimes demonstrate either different readings of the war or contexts in which they are operating, they have also offered a number of strikingly consistent themes in their attempts to gain control over the analogy and use it for their own purposes. In particular when undertaking almost any military operation, they claim to have learned "lessons" from the war that include maintaining clear strategic objectives, making adequate resources available for troops, and ensuring that public support remains high.
Although these lessons would all seem to be sensible, presidents also appeal to public sentiment about Vietnam to garner support for their own military ventures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, to do this they laud the heroism of the troops who fought in Vietnam, offer suggestions about why they believe the U.S. military failed in its mission there, and sometimes cover what they see as the poor treatment of the troops when they returned home. A common trope in this presidential rhetoric is that during the war in Vietnam, U.S. politicians and military leaders did not permit the troops to win, and that this must not be allowed to happen again.
Articulating these "lessons" of Vietnam has arguably become even more important for American presidents since the events of 9/11, as George W. Bush's decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of his war on terror provoked immediate and prolonged comparisons with that war. Many commentators quickly began to draw parallels between Bush's two wars and the war in Vietnam, suggesting that in making these long-term military commitments President Bush was forgetting the lessons of Vietnam and the "Vietnam syndrome"--caution against using military force abroad that appeared to have dominated foreign policy makers' mind-sets since 1975. These commentators asked numerous questions of members of the Bush administration, and particularly the president himself, about such comparisons and the lessons to be taken from the Vietnam War that might be relevant to the conflicts of the war on terror.
While initially somewhat reluctant to deal with these challenges, President Bush slowly attempted to reappropriate Vietnam's lessons for his own rhetorical and ultimately practical purposes. The nature of the terrorist attacks on U.S. territory and their apparent similarity to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 initially opened up a rhetorical space that meant the president could resist the Vietnam analogy, and, instead, present the war on terror as something more closely akin to World War II. As the length of the Afghan and then Iraqi wars increased, and it became clear that neither was progressing as many would have liked, however, reporters often forced the president to contend with the comparisons to Vietnam, to offer his own perspective on what had gone wrong there, and to suggest how understanding these mistakes could inform the present struggles. In response, Bush developed a number of rhetorical themes to support his own foreign policies by placing Vietnam in a tradition of noble wars that the United States had fought in the cause of freedom around the world and then to connect these themes to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, he drew a line from the wars on terror, back through Vietnam to World War II and before. Crucially, he also focused on the bravery and sacrifice of ordinary soldiers who fought in Vietnam, not just to praise their efforts but to conflate their individual sacrifices with the broader purpose of the war, as if the soldiers' courage automatically reflected the nobility of America's cause. Bush claimed that American leaders of the time had not adequately defined the purpose of the mission in Vietnam, but also that these same leaders had interfered in military operations, hampering the ability of the troops to do their job, and simply failed to give American soldiers enough resources to "allow" them to win. Bush implied, and sometimes stated outright, that that he would not repeat these mistakes.
Even more striking has been the consistency with which George W. Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, has maintained this view of Viemam to justify his own military policies. Like his predecessor, President Obama has focused on the theme of individual commitment and sacrifice among ordinary soldiers to reinscribe Vietnam as a moral victory founded upon the principles of a struggle for freedom, which he then links to his foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan. Moreover, like President Bush, President Obama's revisionist language borrows directly from several of his predecessors, most notably President Ronald Reagan who often addressed the lessons of Viemam when he was in office.
Presidents Bush and Obama have therefore deployed the lessons of Vietnam creatively to serve their foreign policies, but they have also articulated these lessons in such a way as to close down deliberation about their broader meaning. Most obviously, each president has utilized them to reinforce the need for a state of what Robert Ivie (2011, 740) has called "continuous war" and Stephen John Hartnett and Laura Ann Stengrim (2006, 182) have characterized as "unilateral and perpetual war." Each president's attempts to turn the Vietnam analogy to their rhetorical advantage by emphasizing what they, misleadingly, claim were the original goals in intervening there--the fight for freedom, the spread of democracy, opposition to authoritarian rule--therefore become key arguments in relation to difficult contemporary wars whose purposes and ultimate outcomes also remain unclear. Rather than question how well the war is going, they imply, think about what the war is for, and what losing it will do, not just to the people of that region but also to the United States. The Vietnam trauma is therefore rhetorically transformed from being a cautionary tale about the perils of American interventionism into a celebratory story of American heroism in its intent and its conduct. While Obama has not done this to the same extent as Bush, the ambiguity in his approach, especially over policies Afghanistan, has led him far closer to this rhetorical solution than surely even he could have anticipated before he became president.
In this article, I connect what I see as these revisionist readings of the Vietnam War, and particularly a brand of popular revisionism first advanced by Reagan, to contemporary presidential rhetoric about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I base this on a reading of public statements made by presidents Bush and Obama in addresses and press conferences, in which they often make a direct link between Vietnam, and Afghanistan and Iraq. (1) I adopt a broad definition of presidential rhetoric, taking it to mean a presidential attempt to persuade his audience--in this case the U.S. public--about his policy agenda, and take the fact that he delivered the speech to mean he approved its language, and therefore I use speeches and press conferences together. I argue that both Presidents Bush and Obama have attempted to reappropriate the disaster of Vietnam to gain support for what they claim is a benevolent form of American empire but which is in fact ultimately predicated on militarism. (2) While they have differed in some of the language they have used to do this, and President Obama has been more nuanced, both presidents agree that the crisis of the Pax Americana induced by defeat in Vietnam simply cannot be allowed to stand. So just as the conflicts of the war on terror provided opportunities for the Bush administration to throw off the shackles of a post-Vietnam and post-Cold War malaise that had apparently placed limits on American militarism around the world, they have also offered Presidents Bush and Obama ways to reinstill in the American public a set of ideas about the Vietnam War that portray it as a moral victory, further reinforcing this militarism.
This article builds upon the work of scholars, such as Stephen John Harmett, Jennifer Rose Mercieca, Douglas Kellner, and Laura Ann Stengrim, who have all argued that the dissembling of the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 has had profound consequences for the United States. Harmett and Mercieca (2007, 600) contend that the "white noise" of Bush's presidential discourse has ushered in "an age of imperial deception, cheerful dissimulation, and deadly distraction" that signals the death of presidential rhetoric, while Kellner (2007) has attacked the "politics of lying" in the Bush administration that posed a threat to the fabric of American democracy. In examining the rhetoric of both Bush and Obama together, this article argues that the obfuscating language of presidents on the legacies of Vietnam has broad implications for the articulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. The logical conclusion of this Vietnam revisionism is to reject, in conservative columnist William Satire's words, "the self-flagellation that led to the Vietnam Syndrome--that revulsion at the use of military power that affected our national psyche for decades after our defeat" and instead simply "to recall a noble motive" (2001) that continually justifies interventionist policies.
Revisionist Lessons of Vietnam
From 1975, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter struggled to articulate a clear and consistent vision of the broader significance of the Vietnam War to the people of the United States (McMahon 1999). Perhaps because they believed that, for most Americans, the memories of the war were still too raw and the loss too recent, both presidents tended to avoid the issue if they could.
In contrast, by the 1980s, President Reagan was embracing the memories of Vietnam. Most strikingly, he was able to distill what he believed were the essential points to be derived from the Vietnam experience to challenge the notion that the war had been misguided, immoral, and a total failure. Although Reagan made some efforts to distance his own foreign interventions from critical associations with the Vietnam War (Dionisopoulos and Goldzwig 1992, 63-65), he also attempted to reappropriate Vietnam to shape people's understanding of American history and America's role in the world, fostering a series of myths that Garry Wills argues Reagan himself believed in and that resonated with the American people (1987). Most famously President Reagan often called the conflict a "noble cause," suggesting that the U.S. effort there was equal to that made in any other American conflict, including World War II or the Revolutionary War. Several works on President Reagan have explored the relationship between his oratory concerning Vietnam and the development of popular ideas regarding the war in American public life since the 1980s (e.g., Bates 2011; Erickson 1985; Troy 2005). In particular, President Reagan emphasized the successes and individual sacrifices of servicemen to reinscribe the war as a moral victory rather than a strategic defeat, focusing in particular on the notion that U.S. forces won every encounter in Vietnam to suggest not only that the United States could have won the war, but even that it did win. For example, speaking in 1983, he discussed the recently completed Vietnam Veterans' Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC:
During the dedication ceremonies, the rolls of the missing and dead were read for 3 days, morning till night, in a candlelight ceremony at the National Cathedral. And those veterans of Vietnam who were never welcomed home with speeches and bands, but who were undefeated in battle and were heroes as surely as any who ever fought in a noble cause, staged their own parade on Constitution Avenue. (Reagan 1984)
Bates has recently shown how, as in so many other areas, the power of President Reagan's rhetoric lay in the consistency with which he articulated his ideas, and he traces Reagan's Vietnam as "noble cause" rhetoric back to the start of the war itself in the 1960s (2011, 45-46). Moreover, as Troy rightly notes (2005, 111), although this rhetoric was originally highly controversial it "would become increasingly mainstreamed in the American collective memory." Reagan's ideas were attractive to Americans who had had time to reflect on the war and still wanted answers as to why it had not been able to achieve its objectives there. Celebrating the soldiers who fought in a "noble cause" but who struggled both during and after the war therefore helped fulfill the needs of a nation that was trying to come to terms with the conflict. It is significant, for example, that American audiences also reacted favorably to cultural products of the time promoting a similar message, most obviously the first two films of the Rambo series and even supposedly antiwar films such as Platoon, which still developed a narrative of individual sacrifice and lost innocence in Vietnam (Bates 2011, 64-86). (3)
While Reagan concentrated on the justness of the cause and the valor of people who had served, he also increasingly began to connect such themes to perhaps his most important lesson of the American experience in Vietnam: that the American government had not "allowed" these forces, which had fought so valiantly and successfully, to win. (4) As in other areas, he repeated this idea many times, but it reached its apogee in his address at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial on Memorial Day 1988, when he suggested, "Perhaps at this late date we can all agree that we've learned one lesson: that young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win" (Reagan 1988).
Yet while President Reagan's rhetoric was an attempt to heal open wounds, it initially did no such thing (Bates 2011, 48-50) and failed to end discussion of the appropriate lessons even within his own administration. His secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, set out to produce a set of criteria against which the commitment of troops should be judged, which he announced in November 1984 at the National Press Club in Washington DC. The "Weinberger Doctrine," as it came to be known, established six "rules" that the United States should follow before it deployed troops. Put briefly, these were that
1. The vital interests of the United States should be at stake
2. The commitment should be wholehearted and in order to win
3. The aims and objectives should be clearly defined
4. The relationship between these aims and objectives and the size of the forces should be constantly reassessed and adjusted if necessary
5. There should be "reasonable assurance" of the support of Congress and the American public
6. The commitment of troops should be considered as a last resort. (Handel 2001, 310-11)
While Secretary Weinberger's set of rules was primarily intended to be a policy prescription, these rules were also rhetorical devices intended to close down debate about the legacies of Vietnam. He later explained that he believed it had been "a very terrible mistake for a Government to commit soldiers to battle without any intention of supporting them sufficiently to enable them to win, and indeed without any intention to win at all" (Weinberger 1990, 6). Yet his articulation of these rules had the opposite effect, even within the Reagan administration. Weinberger's opposite number in the State Department, George Shultz, was appalled, calling Weinberger's doctrine "a complete abdication of the duties of leadership" before going on to defend American participation in Vietnam (1993, 650; see also Dionisopoulos and Goldzwig 1992). Yet while this exchange captured some of the tensions that existed within the Reagan administration over the legacies of Vietnam and their implications for the application of U.S. military power (Kalb and Kalb 2011, 92-110), both sides appeared to agree that President Lyndon Johnson's decision to send troops had been correct, but the way he had done this through slow escalation without a full commitment on the part of the U.S. government or military offered cautionary lessons for current policy makers.
Despite their different approaches, these Reagan administration ideas encouraged a growing belief among many Americans that the United States could have won the war in Vietnam if it had conducted itself differently. While there was some disagreement over how political and military leaders should have fought the war in order to achieve victory, the notion that policy makers and military leaders had missed opportunities in Vietnam gained increasing prominence in the 1980s as a series of revisionist histories achieved academic and even popular success. In particular, the revisionist school argued that the crusade against communism in Southeast Asia had been laudable, that alternative courses of action were open to the United States in Vietnam if it been willing to explore and act upon them, and that any number of individuals and institutions, but especially "the media, the anti-war movement, Congress, and parts of the foreign policy establishment," fatally undermined the war effort and that ultimately "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory" (Melanson 1983, 193). Richard Melanson has suggested that for those who subscribed to this revisionism, defeat in Vietnam ushered in a period of "U.S. demoralization, international doubt about the credibility of the United States, a psychological windfall for the Communists, and the continued advance of Vietnamese imperialism throughout Southeast Asia" (1983, 198).
One of the most prominent of these revisionist critiques, On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, was published by Harry G. Summers in the early 1980s (1983). Summers, who had been an Army colonel in Vietnam and then worked at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, argued that there had been a way for the United States to prevail in Vietnam. Basing his analysis on a reading of Carl Von Clausewitz's classic strategic study, On War, Summers argued that the U.S. political and military leadership had fought the wrong type of war, based on the belief that they were confronted with a guerrilla-style insurgency. In fact, what they should have done, he argued, was fight a much more conventional war focused on containing North Vietnamese forces--they certainly should have not have concerned themselves with the internal situation in South Vietnam. He also suggested that the U.S. government should have been willing to mobilize the reserves and even to declare war on North Vietnam in 1964 in order to galvanize the support of the American people. In blaming a combination of military leaders who did not understand the type of war that they needed to fight, and politicians who did not give U.S. forces the latitude to fight successfully, Summers contributed to a strand of military thought that sought to explain the defeat in Vietnam (e.g., Palmer 1978, 1984). Although scholars often attacked his views (Gates 1984; Hess 1986), Summers' thesis quickly became the most influential work in a developing revisionist canon, winning praise in the political and military circles in which it was widely distributed (Dauber 2001). (5)
Summers' work complemented and further encouraged the growing conservative understanding of the war propounded most prominently by President Reagan that saw it as both noble and winnable. Guenter Lewy's America in Vietnam (1978), for example, a carefully considered but still controversial academic account of the war, compared Vietnam to other American wars to argue that U.S. participation in Vietnam had been morally justified. This morality, Lewy suggested, had been obscured by the very nature of American society--which was open and honest--in comparison to the closed and secretive state of Communist North Vietnam, and he described "a veritable industry [in the United States] publicizing alleged [American] war crimes" committed in Vietnam (1978, 224). Although Lewy claimed that he wanted "to challenge the facile and unhistorical assumptions of an inevitable collapse of South Vietnam" (1978, 440), he fell back on blaming the media, especially television, as well as the antiwar movement for the disillusionment among the American people that caused withdrawal.
Summers, Lewy, and other representatives of a serious, albeit flawed, revisionist canon were joined by a number of popular revisionists who pressed their case much more fervently. Such luminaries as former President Richard Nixon, former commander of American forces in Vietnam William C. Westmoreland, and prominent neoconservative journalist Norman Podhoretz added to the body of work (Nixon 1986; Podhoretz 1982; Westmoreland 1976). (6) While provocateurs like Podhoretz were more trenchant in their views than academics like Lewy, in their broadly similar conclusions they demonstrated a need not just to explain why the United States had failed, but also to find scapegoats and argue for continuing U.S. intervention around the world. Podhoretz contended that by the time the war ended in 1975, "the debate over Vietnam had already been settled in favor of the moral and political position of the antiwar movement" (1982, 14), although he failed to define what this "antiwar movement" was. Podhoretz's account may have been one of the most extreme examples of revisionism, but it also showed the extent to which the revisionist cause had entered the political mainstream. Commendations for his work came from, among others, Guenter Lewy and even President Reagan himself. (7)
This mainstreaming of revisionist critiques that built upon Reagan's approach continued into the 1990s and beyond. Thus, when President Reagan's successor, President George H. W. Bush, faced down Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, he made it clear that, despite people's fears, there was no way that this war would become "another Vietnam":
This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war.., we will not permit our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs. And I pledge to you: There will not be any murky ending. If one American soldier has to go into battle, that soldier will have enough force behind him to win and then get out as soon as possible, as soon as the U.N. objectives have been achieved. I will never---ever--agree to a halfway effort. (Bush 1990)
The apparently desperate need to avoid sending troops to fight with "their hands tied behind their backs" and not to allow a "murky ending" to the war led President Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to adopt and adapt many of Secretary Weinberger's ideas in fighting the conflict, including massive application of U.S. military power. (8) The resulting swift victory of U.S. forces appeared to vindicate Powell's strategy, but, almost as important, it allowed the president to declare that the United States had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all" (Bush 1991). The war had been kept short, and American casualties were relatively low, thus containing any would-be Vietnam analogists and permitting the president to declare victory over Saddam Hussein and the legacies of Vietnam. Certainly Colonel Harry Summers agreed with him, writing that the president had overseen "a masterful campaign ... This time we had done it right," particularly because he had won over the American people (1994, 57). Yet, as President Bush's successors would discover, this was very far from the case.
Learning the Lessons of Vietnam after 9/11
The supposed victory over the "Vietnam syndrome" in the early 1990s was, in fact, short-lived. President Bill Clinton's post-Cold War interventions often proved to be not just difficult to conduct but also challenging to explain without raising the specter of Vietnam, his disastrous military action in Somalia being perhaps the most obvious example. And in spite of the catastrophic events of 9/11, the two most recent presidents have arguably found it more difficult to resist discussing the Vietnam analogy because the United States has become engaged in long-term conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that many people have likened to the U.S. struggle in Southeast Asia. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have both often resisted making direct comparisons between the post-9/ll wars and the Vietnam debacle, despite reporters and other interlocutors often needling them about such comparisons. Over time, however, both presidents have had to engage with the implications that Vietnam has for contemporary conflicts, and they have relied on revisionist readings of the war to justify their own ventures.
In contrast to Reagan and to a lesser extent George H. W. Bush during their terms of office, President George W. Bush refused several opportunities he was given to discuss Vietnam in the months after 9/11. He found it difficult to reference the war in Southeast Asia now that he was promising a long, protracted war that could quickly have become associated with the failure in Vietnam. Instead, therefore, President Bush tapped into popular ideas about World War II that he knew would resonate with the American people in an attempt to tie them to the current struggle and legitimate his war on terror (Noon 2004). Initially, this was relatively easy when the United States had been attacked and because there was a wave of popular nostalgia in the United States at the time commemorating World War II, so many Americans made an immediate connection between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor (Bostdorff 2003). Early on in the war in Afghanistan, for example, President Bush was able to suggest that, "this war is more akin to World War II than it is to Vietnam. This is a war in which we fight for the liberties and freedom of our country" (2002). By linking the war on terror and its struggle in Afghanistan to the Good War of 1941-45, the president attempted to jettison the ambiguity of wars that America has undertaken since 1945 to portray it as a morally justified struggle of freedom over tyranny (Gardner 2010). Bush therefore exploited growing public sentiment that saw World War II as a morally justified conflict, as well as growing conservative sentiment that valued morality in politics, in an attempt to establish a clear rhetorical framework for the war on terror (Spielvogel 2005).
Yet President Bush could not escape from some of the rhetorical traps set in discussing Vietnam, and one of the fallacies of his comparison to World War II was exposed when he had to concede that Afghanistan was a guerilla war and that Vietnam had shown "you cannot fight a guerrilla war with conventional forces. That's why I've explained to the American people that we're engaged in a different type of war, one obviously that will use conventional forces but one in which we've got to fight on all fronts" (2001). It was also significant that Bush still tried to resist discussing the Vietnam analogy, sometimes pointedly, and he once refused even to engage with a reporter's question about it (2003e). The president was already trying to have it both ways; sometimes refusing to concede that there were parallels between his war and the one in Vietnam, while choosing a few points of comparison to boost his own policy position when it suited him.
By the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, President Bush was finding it much more challenging to impose the World War II analogy and to resist the one about Vietnam. Iraq offered no reference point, such as 9/11, despite Bush initially very successfully linking Iraq with terrorism and even 9/11 itself (McAllister 2006), and because no weapons of mass destruction were found there following the invasion, the threat that Iraq had purportedly posed still remained unclear. Moreover, as the insurgency then took hold, the president had to face more questions about what some clearly saw as worrying comparisons with the U.S. troops getting bogged down in a quagmire just like in Vietnam. Yet President Bush still tried rejected any comparisons. "I think the analogy is false," he told one reporter. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy" (Bush 2004b, 2005a). It seems the themes he believed the American people would associate with Vietnam--a long struggle, significant U.S. military casualties, lack of public support, and eventual ignominious withdrawal and defeat--would taint the wars that he now undertook even though he had warned the American people that the war on terror would take time, and he knew that American casualties were inevitable.
As the Iraq war continued, however, and the situation appeared not to improve, the president found it harder to develop a rhetorical strategy to deal with the Vietnam analogy. His solution was now to draw out the differences that he claimed to see between Iraq and Vietnam both to reject the comparison and to offer his own, spurious reading of the lessons of Vietnam in an attempt to link Iraq to wars of the past that he believed the American people saw as noble and morally justified. For example, on different occasions he claimed that, in contrast to Vietnam, the Iraqi people had overthrown a tyrannical regime and, later, successfully voted for a new constitution and unity government. This at best questionable reading of the situation in Iraq was clearly an ex post facto justification for the war that was still supposed to make the American public think about such noble causes as World War II and even the founding of the United States. Furthermore, the president was also already attempting to link support for the troops in Iraq with the overall aims in the war by stressing that U.S. forces were operating under a markedly different system from the Vietnam period--an all-volunteer army whose morale was, in his opinion, high. He claimed that support for those troops was also strong at home, by implication different from the time of the war in Vietnam (Bush 2006d, 2006g, 2007a), suggesting that because people now believed in the troops fighting in Iraq, they also supported the war. (9) Furthermore, the president's rhetoric even equated failure to support the troops with criticism of the war on terror and a lack of patriotism during a time of national crisis (Kellner 2007, 633).
While President Obama has faced a different set of issues than President Bush, and Obama attempted to distance his policies from the disastrous Bush-era interventions, the rhetorical conundrum he has faced over comparisons between Vietnam and current wars has often led him to take a strikingly similar approach to his predecessor. Like President Bush, the current president remains wary of the parallels of the Vietnam case while simultaneously attempting to stamp his own authority on the lessons of Vietnam. While President Obama encountered relatively few controversies over his decision to draw down the U.S. commitment in Iraq, the continuing Afghan war presented him with a number of significant challenges from both Republicans and Democrats that brought into question his ability to marshal public support (Jacobson 2010, 604-7). As the war in Afghanistan was already more than seven years old by the time he took office, he had to acknowledge that the chances of maintaining support, especially during a period of financial austerity, were increasingly remote. (10) Moreover, his decision to increase the U.S. commitment there by some 30,000 troops during 2009 resurrected the specter of Vietnam. Even before he had announced this surge, the New York Times asked "Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?" (Baker 2009). For obvious reasons, Obama answered with a resounding "no."
In a major speech at West Point in December 2009, President Obama laid out his strategy for Afghanistan. As Robert Ivie has suggested, Obama faced several challenges in making this speech because of previous statements made during the presidential campaign and in his first months in office that appeared to promise a more peaceful foreign policy, when he had now decided to initiate a surge in order to bring the war to a close. Ivie argues that the president demonstrated a "posture of rhetorical prudence" in performing this delicate task by emphasizing the importance of transition and transformation in Afghanistan (2011,730). The problem for the president was, however, that his strategy had troubling echoes of the war in Vietnam, particularly its association with President Nixon's policy of "Viemamization." Obama therefore felt he had to address the issue directly:
[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now and to rely only on efforts against Al Qaida from a distance would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on Al Qaida and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies. (Obama 2009e)
These "tormented words" as Ivie calls them (2011, 736) are revealing for a number of reasons. Although Obama apparently insisted to his speechwriter that a reference to Vietnam be included in the speech, his unease in addressing the topic is clear. The president's assertion that comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam "depends on a false reading of history" is clearly an attempt to impose his own historical narrative on events rather than let those who would point out the unhappy parallels dominate the discourse. Yet in doing so, he opens himself up to charges that he is repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam era. Ivie notes that this response served less to debunk the idea that there were parallels than to obscure the fact that he had not solved the Afghan conundrum, in what he calls Obama's "rhetorical sleight of hand" (2011, 737). Moreover, and somewhat paradoxically, the president both rejected the Vietnam parallel--this situation was different because al-Qaeda attacked the United States and would do so again if it had the opportunity--while using a classic revisionist trope that one of the cardinal errors in Vietnam had been "cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing." Listeners were therefore supposed to forget about the Vietnam analogy while simultaneously drawing the conclusion from it that the only solution was to stay the course until the president decided the United States should leave.
This rhetorical tactic of rejecting the Vietnam parallel while cherry picking a few lessons that had obvious popular appeal had become increasingly evident in his predecessor's rhetoric. Even when President Bush was disputing the Vietnam parallels early in his presidency, he claimed he had identified mistakes that had been made in that war which he would not repeat. He told reporters at a press conference in 2002, "I learned some good lessons from Vietnam. First, there must be a clear mission. Secondly, the politics ought to stay out of fighting a war. There was too much politics during the Vietnam war. There was too much concern in the White House about political standing" (Bush 2002). On one level, there was a practical reason for Bush making such a statement as many people at the time and after had accused President Johnson of becoming too heavily involved in micromanaging aspects of the war in Vietnam. Yet President Bush seemed to be suggesting that politics and war could be separated. Leaving aside the notion that the president might be unconcerned with his "political standing," his paradoxical view of the war argued for politicians to stay out while simultaneously acknowledging the requirement for them to establish "a clear mission." Bush repeated this contradictory statement on a number of other occasions, suggesting that the "essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War" were those concerned with political interference, and that commanders on the ground should be involved in making decisions, especially regarding troop numbers (Bush 2004a, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c). The superficial appeal of the president promoting such ideas to the public was clear--political leaders had let the country down during the Vietnam War--but the logical conclusion of Bush making them--that he was not like one those kinds of leaders--was also increasingly apparent. In one interview, the president claimed that, had he been in charge during the Vietnam War, "I hope I would have done it differently. I hope I would have had a clearer mission and given the militaries [sic] the tools and their strategy necessary to achieve a mission, as opposed to politicizing the war the way they [politicians] did" (Bush 2003b). In contrast to Vietnam, he had suggested on the eve of the war in Iraq in March 2003,
Our mission is clear in Iraq. Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. In order to disarm, it will mean regime change. I'm confident we'll be able to achieve that objective in a way that minimizes the loss of life. No doubt there's risks in any military operation; I know that. But it's very clear what we intend to do. And our mission won't change. Our mission is precisely what I just stated. We have got a plan that will achieve that mission, should we need to send forces in. (Bush 2003a)
President Obama has also adopted this theme to deal with the rhetorical problem of Vietnam in relation to his policies in Afghanistan by arguing that the lack of clarity of the mission in Vietnam and refusal to support the troops there undid the U.S. effort. In October 2009, drawing directly from the maxims of the Weinberger doctrine, President Obama claimed that "if that war long ago [Vietnam], teaches us anything, then surely it is this: If we send our men and women in uniform into harm's way, then it must be only when it is absolutely necessary. And when we do, we must back them up with the strategy and the resources and the support they need to get the job done" (2009c). (11) By stating that their wars were wars of last resort, and that the troops would be given adequate resources, both in apparent contrast to Vietnam, Presidents Bush and Obama attempted to draw the American people into supporting their present engagements. They reinforced this appeal to the public with repeated use of "our" and "we."
Furthermore, both Presidents Bush and Obama have borrowed President Reagan's idea of America's "noble cause" in Vietnam in an effort to gain another rhetorical advantage from the complex legacies of the war there. They attempt to place Vietnam in a grand narrative of American history dating back to the American struggle for independence in the late eighteenth century. They have usually done this by celebrating the individual and collective heroism of U.S. forces in all combat missions and acknowledging the sacrifices that all soldiers make. They then reference notable conflicts and battles in which the United States has participated to suggest that, however contested those episodes were at the time among sections of the American public, people today should understand all America's wars in terms of the honorable intentions of those who served, and, by implication, the morality of the mission. This reflects some of the tensions between the lack of clarity involved in fighting in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but the need to maintain the U.S. public's support for the troops, and therefore the overall war aims.
George W. Bush in particular tended to connect the apparently noble ideals of America's past to his post-9/11 theme of the struggle for liberty and freedom in the war on terror. For example, on Memorial Day 2003, with the Iraq war apparently won and before the insurgency had fully developed, President Bush honored all who served and had served:
From the battles of Iraq and Afghanistan to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam to the trials of World War to the struggles that made us a nation, today we recall that liberty is always the achievement of courage. And today we remember all who have died, all who are still missing, and all who mourn. And on this day, especially, our Nation is grateful to the brave and fallen defenders of freedom. (Bush 2003c)
He persisted with this theme especially when addressing those in uniform (e.g., Bush 2003d, 2006f, 2006h). By linking Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and the two world wars through the theme of "liberty," Bush follows a pattern observed by Kathryn M. Olson during the presidencies of Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, and Reagan, in which presidents exploit the American population's guilt about treatment of soldiers, and particularly veterans, which blurs the distinction between supporting the troops and supporting the war in order to suppress dissent about their own military interventions (1991).
As one might expect, President Obama has taken a very similar approach to explain the sacrifice that ordinary men and women have made, and continue to make, around the world. He has also done this by linking this sacrifice to previous American wars, and the broad theme of freedom, producing language that it strikingly similar to his predecessors such as the two Bush presidents and President Reagan. This has been particularly important in relation to Afghanistan where, as we have seen, President Obama's decision to increase troop numbers early in his administration caused considerable controversy. When visiting Bagram Airbase in December 2010, for example, he explicitly likened the struggle that the U.S. troops were undertaking there to the American Revolution and subsequent conflicts during the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The troops who fought in all these wars, he suggested, "did it for the same reason that all of you do, because the freedom and the liberty that we treasure, that's not simply a birthright. It has to be earned by the sacrifices of generations--generations of patriots, men and women who step forward and say, 'Send me. I know somebody has got to do it, and I'm willing to serve.' Men and women who are willing to risk all and some who gave all to keep us safe and to keep us free" (Obama 2010b). In order to appeal to the sensibilities of most Americans and to reinscribe the narratives of sacrifice and heroism necessary for this kind of conflict, Obama has continually tied these broad themes to U.S. historical developments, especially when speaking to the military. For example, on Veterans' Day in November 2009, with the drawn-down of troops in Iraq well underway, the president expressed the thanks of a "grateful nation" to its armed forces as well as suggesting that part of the celebration was also "to tell stories that demand to be told." He continued,
They're stories of wars whose names have come to define eras, battles that echo throughout history. They're stories of patriots who sacrificed in pursuit of a more perfect union: of a grandfather who marched across Europe, of a friend who fought in Vietnam, of a sister who served in Iraq. They're the stories of generations of Americans who left home barely more than boys and girls, became men and women, and returned home heroes. (Obama 2009d) (12)
President Obama's argues that all the wars the United States undertakes are to further the causes of "freedom and the liberty that we treasure," and he takes it as being axiomatic that the heroism demonstrated by the soldiers who fight in these wars somehow reflects the nobility of the broader cause. For Obama, the confusion and controversy over the war paradoxically reinforces this idea. Referring to one of the many bloody skirmishes that had taken place during the American struggle in Vietnam, he suggested that it was not a battle "that changed the course of a war," nor did it even have a name "like Tet or Hue or Khe Sanh." However, "like countless battles, known and unknown, it is a proud chapter in the story of the American soldier" (Obama 2009c).
President Obama's narratives also focus on individual sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam that are remarkably similar to Reagan's, and are clearly intended to serve the same ends, appealing to the American people by connecting the suffering of the individual to the apparent nobility of the war. Like President Reagan, President Obama has particularly lamented the poor treatment of those who returned to the United States from Vietnam, suggesting that although Vietnam veterans "served with honor, exemplary dedication, and courage," they were "often shunned" when they returned home. "That was a national disgrace and it must never happen again. And that's why we're making sure our veterans from today's wars are shown the respect and the dignity they deserve" (Obama 2010a). (13) Although he thought, "we've done a much better job during these wars [Iraq and Afghanistan] than we did during Vietnam, where in many cases our treatment of veterans was inexcusable ... we can always do more" (Obama 2009a). Obama contends that his administration is learning the lessons of Vietnam while simultaneously exploiting people's feelings of guilt about the way soldiers were treated after returning from Vietnam to suggest a higher purpose in Iraq, and especially Afghanistan. The apotheosis of Obama's revisionism came in August 2011 when the president used language that could easily have come from the mouth of Reagan connecting the bravery and conduct of Vietnam veterans with the enduring idea that the United States all but won the war through this success on the battlefield.
You, our Vietnam veterans, did not always receive the respect that you deserved, which was a national shame. But let it be remembered that you won every major battle of that war--every single one. As President, I've been honored to welcome our Vietnam veterans to the White House and finally present them with the medals and recognition that they had earned. It's been a chance to convey, on behalf of the American people, those simple words with which our Vietnam veterans greet each other: Welcome home. (Obama 2011b)
In making the case that American forces won "every major battle of that war," President Obama developed one of the more extreme revisionist themes that the war was not only winnable, but even that the United States won it, only for this victory to be undone by some dark forces, whether it was the ineptitude of the successive administrations, the scheming of the Central Intelligence Agency, or because of Congress cutting off funds. As with the crudest form Vietnam revisionism, Obama's rhetorical solution to the problem of Vietnam only has to imply such ideas to appeal to public sensibilities about Vietnam developed by Reagan and others over the last few decades.
The Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy
To differing degrees, both President Obama and President Bush have also developed another strand of conservative Vietnam revision in their public rhetoric. This strand suggests that the American failure in Vietnam had negative consequences for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and that the United States needs continually to strive to overcome the legacies of the war. Like most revisionist accounts of the war (Wiest 2010, 8-9), neither president questions why the United States needed to make a commitment in Vietnam; instead they are concerned with why it failed to achieve its aims and objectives once it was there. In other words, the error on the part of members of the U.S. government was not in making the commitment but in the way that they made it. This has been a unifying trait in most recent conservative revisionist accounts of the war, including those that have been published during the war on terror (Lind 2002; Moyar 2006; Sorley 1999; Walton 2002; Woodruff 1999). Yet these accounts imply that U.S. withdrawal from, and then the fall of, South Vietnam had consequences for U.S. foreign policy, leading to, among other things, disarray in the U.S. Army, popular disillusionment with military and political leaders, and wariness among those leaders of making further commitments, undermining both the U.S. case to be the leader of the free world and its pledges to allies. American presidents have also shared these concerns and claimed that they will no allow such things to happen as a result of their own wars.
President Bush especially articulated fears of the enormous consequences for the United States if it did not stay the course in the Middle East, consequences that would, in fact, be far greater than those it had experienced after Vietnam:
Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: Al Qaida and Iran. If we fail there, Al Qaida would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends, and our allies. Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaida in Pakistan would grow in confidence and boldness. And violent extremists around the world would draw the same dangerous lesson they did from our retreats in Somalia and Vietnam. This would diminish our Nation's standing in the world and lead to massive humanitarian casualties and increase the threat of another terrorist attack on our homeland. (Bush 2008)
This last theme was particularly important for the president and he stressed that, unlike Vietnam or indeed any other recent conflict, the consequences of not standing firm went beyond America's reputation around the world to threaten the United States itself. Here, he used the poignant memory of 9/11 as what Herbert Simons has called "an emblematic reminder of the need for steadfast vigilance" (2007, 187). Bush therefore wanted to prepare the American people for a long struggle. On a visit to Vietnam in 2006, a reporter asked the president to comment on the lessons of the war in that country for Iraq. "[T]he task in Iraq is going to take a while," he replied. This war was, he went on, part of "the great struggle we're going to have ... between radicals and extremists versus people who want to live in peace, and ... Iraq is a part of the struggle" (Bush 2006i). More than this, he stated the following year: "The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland; the enemy in Iraq does. Nine-Eleven taught us that to protect the American people, we must fight the terrorists where they live so that we don't have to fight them where we live" (Bush 2007b, 2007c). (14)
President Bush's public position on the issue appeared to have been heavily influenced by events in late 2005 when the U.S. government intercepted a letter apparently sent the previous July, by al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's chief in Iraq. The letter, whose provenance was a matter of considerable disagreement, set out a vision of global jihad but dealt particularly with its connections to the American presence in Iraq. At one point, al-Zawahiri noted that the American withdrawal from Vietnam and leaving its allies to fight alone had set a precedent. President Bush and his advisors were clearly struck by this inclusion, and in his radio address during the week of the release of the letter, the president called attention to it:
The terrorists know their only chance for success is to break our will and force us to retreat. The Al Qaida letter points to Vietnam as a model. Zawahiri says, quote, "The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents is noteworthy," end quote. Al Qaida believes that America can be made to run again. They are gravely mistaken. America will not run, and we will not forget our responsibilities. (Bush 2005b)
In response to this, over the next few months President Bush reiterated in his public addresses that the United States would not waver in upholding its responsibilities, referring to the al-Zawahiri statement about Vietnam on at least seven subsequent occasions over the following year (Bush 2005c, 2005d, 2005e, 2005f, 2005g, 2005h, 2006e). (15) In doing so, Bush attempted once again to reject the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq while simultaneously taking a lesson from such comparisons that illustrated the importance of staying the course in Iraq. Ironically, this meant that the president seemed to agree with al-Zawahiri that the United States "ran" from the war in Vietnam, although this was presumably because of the unwarranted political interference there that he often spoke about, but doing so allowed the president to declare that it would not repeat this action in Iraq.
This theme of refusing to cut-and-run in Iraq became one of the president's rhetorical tools that allowed him to assess the situation there, as events appeared to spiraling out of control, and simultaneously to deal with the troubling parallels with Vietnam. Indeed, in the second half of 2007 he began to embrace the lessons of Vietnam much more explicitly by focusing on the regional consequences of American withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1975 and how this could be related to Iraq and the Middle East. He appears to have developed this response in large part because of the unraveling of what Richard Melanson has called the "9/11 consensus" in American public opinion that briefly united Americans in the belief that President Bush's foreign and domestic policy responses to the 9/11 attacks were the correct ones (2007). By now, Iraq in particular had become a huge concern with large numbers of U.S. troops being killed and injured in the insurgency that had arisen in the aftermath of the American invasion.
In August 2007, President Bush gave a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (in which he also made reference to the al-Zawahiri letter) that examined some of the legacies and lessons of Vietnam. Acknowledging that there was "a legitimate debate" about how the United States became involved in Vietnam and how it left, the president suggested, "Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent civilians." He went on to detail the horrors that the Vietnamese Communist government and murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia perpetrated in Indochina (Bush 2007d). Several months previously he had touched on a similar theme, arguing that there was "a parallel there; that if we didn't help this Government [in Iraq] get going, stay on its feet, be able to defend itself, the same thing would happen [as in Southeast Asia]. There would be the slaughter of a lot of innocent life. The difference, of course, is that this time around the enemy wouldn't just be content to stay in the Middle East; they'd follow us here" (Bush 2007a). Therefore, rather than question the lessons of Vietnam for U.S. involvement in foreign wars, President Bush emphasized the need for the United States to stay the course, and, by implication, provide its material and moral leadership around the world both to secure these regions and to ensure the safety of the United States. These speeches bore a striking resemblance to a speech Secretary of State George Shultz gave on "The Meaning of Vietnam" in April 1985 (see Dionisopoulos and Goldzwig 1992).
Bush was arguing that the severely adverse regional consequences following the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam actually served to justify the original intervention, as if Washington became involved to prevent such events happening. These sentiments reinforce the sense of American moral superiority by highlighting the good intentions behind U.S. military involvement around the world but also the negative ramifications of early withdrawal before the job is done. Bush therefore made a double rhetorical move in suggesting that there were negative implications for Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War but also for the United States in denting its claim to global moral leadership and by making it chary of further intervention.
While Obama has been more circumspect in drawing these kinds of lessons, even in Afghanistan, he has also suggested that the repercussions of Vietnam were largely negative for U.S. foreign policy. The lessons that he wants the American public to draw also remain clear: that the United States needs to stay the course to complete the job in Afghanistan and that he will not shy away from doing this. He encapsulated these ideas in an interview during the first three months of his presidency. Although he said he was "enough of a student of history" to understand that the United States "overextended" to the point where it was "severely weakened" in Vietnam, and that the history of Afghanistan demonstrated that it "has not been very favorably disposed towards foreign intervention," this did not imply that the situation was hopeless or that the United States should give up. He pointed in particular to what he saw as the successes it had seen in training the Afghan Army (Obama 2009b). The example of the Vietnam War still has resonance for the president, and its lessons point to the need for the United States to maintain its global role. In January 2012, Obama admonished his audience at the Pentagon "to remember the lessons of history."
We can't afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past, after World War II, after Vietnam, when our military was left ill prepared for the future. As Commander in Chief, I will not let that happen again. Not on my watch. (Obama 2012a)
Justin Rex has recently suggested (2011) that "the president may be able to exert stronger influence on the agenda for war than in other policy domains." If correct, this may help to explain why presidents have so consistently been able to corral public opinion to gain support for their military policies but also why they have seen the advantages of appealing to war analogies and metaphors in order to do so. This even appears to include the Vietnam analogy, which although initially offering potential pitfalls because of the war's highly ambiguous legacies also presents possible benefits if viewed through a revisionist lens and articulated in specific ways.
Early in their presidencies, both Bush and Obama often attempted to avoid discussing the Vietnam War as much as they could. The implications of their wars becoming associated with such a lengthy, unpopular, and ultimately futile conflict made this a necessity. When this rhetorical strategy did not work because their wars were going badly, which then meant that more reporters asked them to address the parallels with Vietnam, both presidents accepted that there were some comparisons and lessons but argued that Vietnam was essentially like all other American wars in that the troops who had fought there had been noble in their intentions, as had, by implication, those policy makers who had made the military commitment. They often made such claims while simultaneously rejecting the overall thrust of the Vietnam analogy because they clearly believed it still had the potential to derail their broader rhetorical strategy. In pursuing this two-pronged approach, both presidents have opened a rhetorical space that allows them to select the similarities they see between current conflicts and Vietnam as well as the lessons that they want the public to take from the Vietnam experience. These moves have then allowed them to advance reasons for their own involvement in foreign wars and, arguably more importantly, the reasons for staying the course. This has also permitted them to at least hint at the most extreme revisionist "lesson" of Vietnam, namely, that certain elements of American government and society undermined U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia and to suggest that this could happen again if the American people fail to support the wars the United States is fighting today. Therefore, while neither president has embraced the lessons of Vietnam as enthusiastically as their predecessor Reagan, both have built upon foundations stretching back at least to President Reagan and the revisionist school of the 1980s that served the needs of a wounded nation at the time, and have continued to do so.
Such rhetorical moves simplify the Vietnam War and reinscribe it as a period of predominantly American suffering from which it must move on. They also reinforce the idea that the United States should continue to assert itself globally in the face of the numerous challenges. Even as presidents have increasingly acknowledged the enormous impact that the war had on the people of Southeast Asia, as President Bush especially did toward the end of his presidency, the lesson to be taken from this for both Presidents Bush and Obama is that the fight must go on until the job is done. This is especially important in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the implicit argument is that the United States must prepare for the conflicts of the future.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am grateful to Marijke Breuning, Milja Kurki, and three anonymous referees for very helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.
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Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK
(1.) I have examined Obama's speeches up to the end of February 2012.
(2.) I broadly follow Hartnett and Stengrim's (2006) discussion of George W. Bush's National Security Strategy. For a much more positive reading of the United States as benevolent empire, see Kagan (1998).
(3.) First Blood (directed by Ted Kotcheff, 1982); Rambo: First Blood Part II (directed by George P. Cosmatos, 1985); Platoon (directed by Oliver Stone, 1986).
(4.) This rhetorical point was not an original one as President Richard Nixon had articulated it as early as 1969 (Nixon 1969), but Reagan promoted it more consistently and forcefully than any president before him and found a more receptive audience than any of his predecessors. I am extremely grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out President Nixon's influence here.
(5.) Dauber argues (2001, 69) that "The Summers perspective slowly but surely attained hegemonic status within the military."
(6.) A good summary of some of these authors' works is provided in Kimball (1988). See also Hess (1994, 2009) for more recent overviews of the differing schools of thought.
(7.) Lewy argued that Podhoretz's book "should help restore our sense of national purpose and enable us to act once again as a world power committed to the defense of freedom." Ronald Reagan urged "all Americans to read this critically important book." Others who provided positive comments included conservative columnist, William Satire, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
(8.) George Herring argues that "Such was the lingering impact of the Vietnam War that the Persian Gulf conflict appeared at times as much a struggle with its ghosts as with Saddam Hussein's Iraq" (1991/1992, 104).
(9.) In the latter case (Bush 2007a), Bush acknowledged that media coverage of wartime events in the Middle East had a parallel to coverage of the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s because "violence on our TV screens affects our frame of mind, probably more so today than what took place in Vietnam."
(10.) "I think what is true is that if we have an open-ended commitment in a place like Afghanistan, with no clear benchmarks for what success means, that the American people, who have just gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, who have already endured eight years of war, at some point are going to say, enough, and rightly so" (Obama 2009f).
(11.) This particular passage bore a striking resemblance to a statement by President Clinton about Vietnam in 1993: "As we all resolve to keep the finest military in the world, let us remember some of the lessons that all agree on. If the day should come when our service men and women must again go into combat, let us all resolve they will go with the training, the equipment, the support necessary to win, and most important of all, with a clear mission to win" (1993).
(12.) Obama has persisted with this theme. See, for example, Obama (2011a).
(13.) He has also persisted with this theme, discussing it again most recently in February 2012 (Obama 2012b).
(14.) More than this, however, Bush had previously suggested that the security of Iraq would not only make the United States safer, it also offered what Bush called "an historic opportunity to change the world ... And the world will be better off, and America will be more secure as a result of the actions we're taking" (Bush 2004b).
(15.) In December 2005, Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon's first secretary of defense, wrote an article that appeared to follow Bush's line of argument. Laird urged the Bush administration had to stay the course in Iraq and prevent Congress from snatching "defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally" as it had done in Vietnam. This time, Laird suggested, the United States should "finish the job properly" (2005).
Andrew Priest is a lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. He is author of Kennedy, Johnson and NATO: Britain, America and the Dynamics of Alliance.
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Date:||Aug 17, 2013|
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