Iraq is not Vietnam. However, the political debate about Vietnam presents a number of valuable lessons that war opponents should be learning. Fast, as in before the 2008 presidential election process starts in earnest. Since candidates are already coming forward to fill what will almost certainly be an open seat (unless Dick Cheney has filled it for some reason), this means war opponents need to act now.

Anti-war activists have great difficulty convincing the majority of Americans that the US should simply abandon Iraq. Even those who opposed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq are now reluctant war supporters because of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule: “you break it, you own it.”

If America withdraws prematurely, Iraq could experience a factional civil war, become a failed state, and/or serve as a future base for terrorists. For many, the US has a political and moral responsibility to rebuild Iraqi society and promote democratization.

War supporters are thus able to frame the debate as one between two simple choices: “stay the course” or withdraw. Many of these very same supporters framed the pre-war debate as a choice between war or appeasement.

This was obviously a false choice, especially given the success of the 1990s weapons inspections regime, which used sanctions to achieve disarmament.

The 1960s debate about Vietnam demonstrates that policymakers face more than two choices when combatting insurgency. At minimum, there is a third choice — escalation. Indeed, many former military officers (and other hawks) believe that the US lost in Vietnam because it was unwilling to provide sufficient forces to win. The so-called “Powell Doctrine” was derived from the lessons of Vietnam: “force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy.”

I’m not going to argue that the US should escalate the war, but I do think there’s tremendous value in pushing the administration on this point. Put simply, war opponents can sizably increase their coalition if they can convince relatively hawkish Americans that the Bush administration really isn’t serious about winning the war in Iraq.

The logic sounds backwards, but I’m serious about this. The war’s most vehement supporters might be convinced to abandon Iraq altogether if they become convinced that the US isn’t really fighting to win.

Consider this analysis of the populist “Jacksonian school” of American foreign policy, as developed by Walter Russell Mead:

For the first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force. The use of limited force is deeply repugnant. Jacksonians see war as a switch that is either “on” or “off.” They do not like the idea of violence on a dimmer switch. Either the stakes are important enough to fight for—in which case you should fight with everything you have—or they are not, in which case you should mind your own business and stay home. To engage in a limited war is one of the costliest political decisions an American president can make—neither Truman nor Johnson survived it.

According to Mead, this political movement is “in many ways the most important in American politics…Jacksonians constitute a large political interest.”

Senator John McCain is one of those Vietnam veterans who thinks the lesson of Vietnam is that the US cannot merely “stay the course” when facing stagnation:

We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting and because we limited the tools at our disposal.

According to Mead, “John McCain is a Jacksonian.”

Here’s the challenge for the anti-war coalition: How can Jacksonians be convinced to withdraw from Iraq — before a populist candidate for President like McCain comes along and rallies the base behind the idea of escalation?

My entire thesis is counterintuitive, I realize, but it is the key to adding Jacksonians to the anti-war coalition. They are “on” war, or “off,” wrote Mead. It’s quite a leap for them to join the anti-war crowd. How can they be convinced to flip-flop on this war?

The key, I think, is to prove that the Bush administration is not serious about winning the war in Iraq. For example, the administration refuses to provide the personnel and armor necessary to fight and win. War opponents have to be careful about their political strategy — in April 1969, the US had 543,000 military personnel in Vietnam. Anti-war forces certainly don’t want to see half a million Americans in Iraq.

On the other hand, 1968 and 1969 were years of great dissent and protest inside the US. Many Jacksonians then and now thought that the left “sold out” the US in Vietnam and prevented the possibility of victory. Protest and dissent, whatever their merits, are not the pathways to adding Jacksonians to the anti-war coalition.

These days, Bush administration officials repeatedly claim that they are merely listening to the Pentagon on the question of military power needed in Iraq. Here’s President Bush from May 2004, for example:

General Abizaid and other commanders in Iraq are constantly assessing the level of troops they need to fulfill the mission. If they need more troops, I will send them.

Bush repeated this claim on June 28, 2005, but it is clear from the remarks that the political strategy is driving the decision:

If our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them. But our commanders tell me they have the number of troops they need to do their job. Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave.

Before the war, of course, then-Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki said that the US would need hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq. Army Secretary Thomas White agreed with Shinseki and was soon canned. My blog entry, “Generals against the war” is one of the most-searched google entries presumably because a lot of people trust military officers to give them the “straight truth” — and they recognize that the military isn’t 100% certain that the Bush team is listening to them.

John Kerry tried to make this point at various times during the 2004 campaign, but he simply didn’t pound it hard enough. He was trying, I think, to finesse the war issue so as to gain and retain support among anti-war Democrats, like those who propelled the Howard Dean campaign and dominated the early presidential primary season.

Maybe those opposed need to hold their noses for awhile and let Democrats like Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton talk about increasing the size of the US commitment to Iraq or reinstallation of conscription.

Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” disputed Bush’s notion that sufficient troops are in place.

“I’m going to send him the phone numbers of the very generals and flag officers that I met on Memorial Day when I was in Iraq,” the Delaware Democrat said. “There’s not enough force on the ground now to mount a real counterinsurgency.”

My suggestion would be more likely to work if some military leaders spoke out for increased troops and criticized the US warplan. I think the Bush administration would ignore or rebuff them, as they did Shinseki.

That’s when the Jacksonians could be primed to jump ship.

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