Slime and Defend: Kennedy’s Vietnam comparison

Ted Kennedy points out that the Bush Administration is a bunch of dishonest slime artists, and gets dishonestly slimed in return. No, Kennedy didn’t say that “Iraq is Vietnam.” What he said, quite clearly, was that the dishonesty with which the Administration marketed the war in Iraq had cost the President the credibility he needs to wage the war on terror effectively, making it “Bush’s Vietnam.”

“Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”

The usual suspects are spinning this comment by Ted Kennedy as a prediction that the United States will be defeated.

Senator Mitch McConnell, for example:

McConnell said Kennedy’s remarks would be seen in Baghdad, “where those who are fighting Americans on the street can view them.”

From there, the leap to saying that Kennedy is actually hoping that the United States will be defeated, and hoping by his comments to encourage our enemies and thus make defeat more likely, is not too far for the legs of Glenn Reynolds (who seems to get most of his exercise jumping to conclusions).

Neither Reynolds nor the post he approvingly sites bothers to link to Kennedy’s actual remarks, which are not at all about predicting that the Iraq war go as badly for the United States as the war in Vietnam did.

In calling Iraq “Bush’s Vietnam,” Kennedy wasn’t referring to the situation on the ground at all; he was claiming that, like Vietnam, Iraq is a war which has been so dishonestly presented to the American people and the world community that the President leading it has lost all credibility and become damaged goods.

Here’s the relevant portion of the text:

The most important principle in any representative democracy is for the people to trust their government. If our leaders violate that trust, then all our words of hope and opportunity and progress and justice ring false in the ears of our people and the wider world, and our goals will never be achieved.

Sadly, this Administration has failed to live up to basic standards of open and candid debate. On issue after issue, they tell the American people one thing and do another. They repeatedly invent “facts” to support their preconceived agenda – facts which Administration officials knew or should have known were not true. This pattern has prevailed since President Bush’s earliest days in office. As a result, this President has now created the largest credibility gap since Richard Nixon. He has broken the basic bond of trust with the American people.

In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that the Bush Administration misled the American people about the threat to the nation posed by the Iraqi regime. A year after the war began, Americans are questioning why the Administration went to war in Iraq, when Iraq was not an imminent threat, when it had no nuclear weapons, no persuasive links to Al Qaeda, no connection to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.

Tragically, in making the decision to go to war, the Bush Administration allowed its own stubborn ideology to trump the cold hard evidence that Iraq posed no immediate threat. They misled Congress and the American people becaue the Administration knew that it could not obtain the consent of Congress for the war if all the facts were known.

By going to war in Iraq on false pretenses and neglecting the real war on terrorism, President Bush gave al-Qaeda two years — two whole years — to regroup and recover in the border regions of Afghanistan. As the terrorist bomings in Madrid and other reports now indicate, al-Qaeda has used that time to plant terrorist cells in countries throughout the word, and establish ties with terrorist groups in many different lands.

By going to war in Iraq, we have strained our ties with long-standing allies around the world — allies whose help we clearly and urgently need on intelligence, on law enforcement, and militarily. We have made America more hated in the world, and made the war on terrorism harder to in.

The result is a massive and very dangerous crisis in our foreign policy. We have lost the respect of other nations in the world. Where do we go to get our respect back? How do we re-establish the working relationships we need with other countries to win the war on terrorism and advance the ideals we share? How can we possibly expect President Bush to do that. He’s the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam, and this country needs a new President.

Kennedy then runs down some additional Bushite departures from the truth, and concludes:

This is the pattern and record of the Bush Administration. Iraq. Jobs. Medicare. Schools. Issue after isssue. Mislead. Deceive. Make up the needed facts. Smear the character of any critic.

Again and again and again, we see this cynical and despicable strategy playing out. It’s undermining our national security, undermining our economy, undermining our health care, undermining our schools, undermining public trust in government, undermining our very democracy. We need a change. November can’t come too soon.

And, just as Kennedy predicted, the Bush team and its allies have spun his attack on them into an attack on the country.

As angry as disloyalty to this country makes me, reckless accusations of disloyalty make me even angrier. Ironically, while our enemies could get no encouragement from Kennedy’s actual speech, the distorted verision of it being pushed by allies of President Bush is likely to encourage the Iraqi resistance. (If I’d been Paul Bremer, I would have said clearly, “Iraq is not Vietnam, and Senator Kennedy never said it was.” But that would have been an act of loyalty to the country, rather than to the President, and probably would have gotten Bremer in trouble.)

I can understand why supporters of the war are made uncomfortable by the Vietnam comparison, especially now that it appears that at least some elements of the Shia community are allying themselves with our enemies among the Sunni. Yes, Gaza may be a closer comparison, but it’s “Vietnam” that suggests to Americans the thought of a war in which we cannot be defeated on the battlefield but cannot prevail. (Whether that was actually true about Vietnam is a different question.) But there’s not excuse for projecting that fear onto a statement that referred to something else entirely.

By misrepresenting Kennedy’s remarks and charging him for disloyalty in saying something he never said, the Bush Team and its allies have, of course, proven that what he actually said was entirely correct: despairing of winning honestly, they are prepared to win at any cost.

Update: More from Reynolds here, still with no link to or quotation from the actual speech, but now with an explicit assertion that Kennedy “wishes” for Iraq to end as Vietnam did. At least when Colin Powell makes an outrageous charge based on a speech he hasn’t even read, he’s intellectually honest enough to adit it. Reynolds dismisses that as being “diplomatic.”

No, I’m not making this up.

[Note also the very dubious propriety of having the proconsul in Baghdad and the Secretary of State engaging in this sort of partisan slanging match. Both of them should read the actual speech and then apologize.]

Second update Reynolds updates, noting that someone else told him that Kennedy’s remark had been taken out of context. So he finally decided to read the speech he’d been pontificating about.

His verdict: Kennedy should have predicted that his words would be taken out of context, so it’s all Kennedy’s fault. Reynolds still doesn’t tell the vast majority of his 100,000 readers who won’t follow the link what the speech was actually about.

Glenn is right about one thing: Kennedy ought to come out, guns blazing, and denounce those who have so badly misrepresented his words.

Third update Eugene Volokh thinks that any “Vietnam” reference is likely to carry with it, to the average reader who doesn’t read the entire document, the notion of an unwinnable war, and that Kennedy can reasonably be held accountable for whatever encouragement the predictable coverage of his remarks might give the other side. (In a phone conversation, Eugene suggested that if Kennedy had wanted to refer only to Presidential deception, he could have mentioned Tonkin Gulf rather than Vietnam.)

That’s certainly a defensible analysis, though I would note that the White House reaction helped generate and spread, rather than dispelling, the false impression some news accounts gave of Kennedy’s position. If someone wanted to say, “Sen. Kennedy’s remarks were inartfully drafted and imprudent in the context of the current uprising,” I would call that reasonable criticism, without entirely agreeing with it.

But note that isn’t what Glenn Reynolds did, in a post on Instapundit and two posts on MS-NBC. He explicitly accused Kennedy, not merely of predicting defeat for this country (which, let’s recall, he didn’t, except by a somewhat strained interpretation of a single phrase) but of desiring that defeat. (As far as I can tell, Kennedy has not, in fact, called for giving up in Iraq.) [Wrong. See Fifth Update, below.]

Massachussetts Senator Ted Kennedy referred to Iraq as “George Bush’s Vietnam.”

Kennedy would like it to be — but of course if Iraq were George Bush’s Vietnam, it would be America’s Vietnam, too. Just like the last one. That would be bad.

Kennedy doesn’t seem to care: What happens to America is second to the all-important task of beating George Bush. Kennedy — like all too many Democratic party stalwarts in Washington — sees Republicans, not Islamist terrorists, as the real enemy. That’s a formula for disaster at home and abroad.

But wait, it gets worse. I quoted earlier. After quoting Colin Powell’s criticism of Kennedy, Reynolds adds:

Pretty diplomatic, but then, Powell is a diplomat, and it wouldn’t do to publicly call the senior Senator from Massachusetts an opportunist who’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy, I guess.

I’ve highlighted what seems to me the key phrase. It directly alludes to the Constitutional definition of treason: “Making war on the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Since there are lots of ways to say “helping the other side” or “encouraging our adversaries” without using the key-phrase “aid and comfort to the enemy,” when a law professor uses that phrase it can only be intended to suggest that the behavior under discussion is morally tantamount to treason.

That’s much too serious a charge to toss around just for the hell of it. Somebody needs to read Glenn the story of Peter and the Wolf.

Fourth update John Weidner of Random Jottings, a conservative, pro-war blogger, originally saw this more or less as Reynolds did, but having read the statement in context changed his mind and promptly said so. Kudos to him: not for agreeing with me (though no doubt that’s always a praiseworthy activity) but for being loyal to the facts rather than to his faction.

And thanks for Dave Trowbridge for being the information vector.

Fifth update Eugene Volokh finds a news account of a Senate debate today in which Kennedy explicitly likens the Iraq situation to Vietnam, describing both as “quagmires.” Unlike Kennedy’s Brookings speech, this is unambiguously defeatist language. I don’t know whether it’s accurate analysis — Phil Carter, who yesterday thought the insurgents “numbered in the hundreds, or low thousands,” and that therefore we might have enough boots already on the ground to win, today worries that the situation might be “quickly spinning out of control,” — but, accurate or not, it’s fair to say that having it used on the Senate floor is likely to make it harder to convince, e.g., Ali al-Sistani to come down on our side rather than Sadr’s side.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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