No, 2005 is not 1968 -- or is it?
The time has come to choose sides again
Iraq is not Vietnam, and 2005 is not 1968.
That's the conventional wisdom. It's what we've been telling ourselves. But I'm less certain about that today than I was two weeks ago.
Something is happening in this country, and some of us have seen it before. An antiwar movement has been quietly building, showing up in the polls if not on the streets. And it is about to exert itself politically. Maybe, as Maureen Dowd suggests, there is "a cultural shift that is turning 2005 into 1968."
I remember 1968 very well as one of those defining moments when people had to choose sides. Recognizing that perhaps two-thirds of the people in the blogosphere were not born in 1968, it may be worth a little retrospective.
Historically, once the decision to go to war is made, this country usually unites behind its commander-in-chief, and even opponents of the war give him the benefit of the doubt, in the interest of presenting a united front, patriotism, and "supporting the troops."
But that "safe conduct" pass expires after a time. In this case, the revocation may come sooner than usual because we have learned that President Bush led us into war under false pretenses. He was determined to oust Saddam Hussein whether the facts warranted it or not.
So under cover of the claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was just waiting to use, and that Saddam was somehow linked to Osama Bin Laden and the 9-11 attacks, Bush got his wish.
Now, two and a half years after "shock and awe" and 27 months after Bush declared "Mission Accomplished," the US finds itself bogged down in a war without a front, where substantial pockets of the population are hostile, and where the "host" country's own troops are woefully inadequate to provide its own security.
Parallels in LBJ's Vietnam and GWB's Iraq
President Lyndon Johnson went to war in Vietnam under false pretenses. After a questionable incident on the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, LBJ persuaded Congress to pass a resolution giving him more authority to wage the war, while offering assurances he had no intention to escalate a ground war. He promptly broke his promise, and in April 1965 the first Marines landed.
The public and the Congress gave LBJ his opportunity, just as they have given it to George W. Bush. But Johnson found himself in a war without a front, where substantial pockets of the population were hostile, and where the "host" country's troops could not provide security. Sound familiar?
Three years after those Marines landed, in April 1968, LBJ ended his reelection campaign the day before the Wisconsin primary. His other considerable accomplishments as President did not matter compared with his massive mistake in Vietnam.
LBJ's decision came after an embarrassing Democratic primary showing in New Hampshire, where Eugene McCarthy, a little-known Senator from Minnesota, got 40 per cent of the vote as an antiwar candidate. McCarthy's success got Bobby Kennedy into the race, and it got Johnson out. Kennedy was assassinated, Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice-president, beat McCarthy for the nomination, and Richard Nixon, with a secret plan to end the war, became president.
It took five more years, until 1973, for the last US troops to leave Vietnam. Another 20,000 members of the U.S. military were killed and 100,000 more wounded during that time.
Is Feingold the next Howard Dean or the next Gene McCarthy?
Tom Hayden, a Vietnam war activist who became a California state senator, asked this week whether Wisconsin's Sen. Russ Feingold is the next Howard Dean. Dean, of course, surged ahead in the Democratic presidential primary season last year because of his strident opposition to the Iraq war. Feingold is alone so far in calling for a defined target date of Dec. 31, 2006 to get US troops out of Iraq.
Perhaps a better question is whether Feingold is the next Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy was not in the antiwar vanguard with people like Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening, Gaylord Nelson,Frank Church and George McGovern. But he was the one willing to run and make the case against a sitting president.
McCarthy did not win the White House, but he helped end the war. Feingold could end up with a similar result. If he does, it would be a great legacy. Sometimes it truly is better to be right than to be president -- although being both would be ideal.
Feingold hasn't said he's running for president in 2008 yet, but if he does he will start with a base who won't forget that he spoke up first. He has solid credentials on the issue, having voted against the war in the first place. None of the famous "voted for it before I voted against it" in his case.
I've never been a Feingold fanatic. Maybe it goes back to when I dismissed his chances of winning a Senate seat in 1988 and worked in the primary for one of the losers. I may not end up supporting him for president; he may not even run. But I am in Feingold's corner today.
Chicago 1968: A time to choose sides
In mid-1968, I had been back from Vietnam less than a year and was only three months out of the Marine Corps when I covered the Democratic convention in Chicago as a reporter. As the demonstrators on the streets said, the whole world really was watching,
I was still ambivalent about the war when I went to the convention -- and especially whether I, as a journalist, should come out against it -- but I wasn't ambivalent by the time it was over. It was a time when it was impossible to be neutral. The first Mayor Daley helped to radicalize me and crystallize my politics. It surprises me that Tom Hayden, who was tried as one of the Chicago Seven who organized those protests, would reference Howard Dean rather than Eugene McCarthy.
This country was already polarized last year, but Iraq -- although a key component --wasn't really what caused it. There were many other factors at work, too.
Now, it's about the war. It's about taking a stand. We are approaching another of those critical moments, like 1968, when you do have to choose sides.
Would-be presidential candidates who lollygag and mugwump on this issue do so at their own peril. This is no time to mince words.
Wanted: A candidate who will oppose the war
Armando caused a small uproar when he said on Daily Kos, the most-read liberal blog, speaking of "the Bidens, Clintons and Bayhs," that:
"We need to let them know that if they don't get on the right side of the Iraq debate, then we won't support their presidential ambitions."I'm ready to say that right now. I will not support a presidential candidate who does not have a strong, clear position against the war and a plan to end US involvement there.
Clark, who will be in Madison on Tuesday, praises Feingold while saying he disagrees about setting a date for withdrawal. He writes in the Washington Post:
The growing chorus of voices demanding a pullout should seriously alarm the Bush administration, because President Bush and his team are repeating the failure of Vietnam: failing to craft a realistic and effective policy and instead simply demanding that the American people show resolve. Resolve isn't enough to mend a flawed approach -- or to save the lives of our troops. If the administration won't adopt a winning strategy, then the American people will be justified in demanding that it bring our troops home.
Well and good. When should that be? How about a timetable, General?
Even when liberals were flocking to Clark last year I had trouble understanding the appeal. Maybe it's being an enlisted man, but it is highly unlikely I would be supporting a four-star general, for any public office.
Meanwhile, 53 per cent of people in the US think the war was a mistake, another 61 per cent think we should get out within a year, and 37 per cent think we should pull our troops out right now, a recent poll says.
Feingold's position is perfectly reasonable and defensible. His detractors like to try to apply the knee-jerk "cut and run" description, but that's not what he's talking about. He's suggesting that we have a rational discussion and try to set a target date to leave Iraq, so that we are not there, as happened in Korea, 50 years from now.
Feingold links his position to a quest for more global security and a stronger focus on international terrorism, saying Iraq is a distraction that takes attention and resources away from the larger goal. Fifty per cent of Americans believe that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism, so he may be on to something.
The polls are already there. Action in the streets is beginning. Can the teach-ins on college campuses be far behind?
Cindy Sheehan's vigil and the 1600-plus observances, attended by hundreds of thousands across the country, to support her are just the first small indicators. In September, when Congress goes back into session, Washington will become the focal point of protests against the war. Feingold believes his Democratic colleagues will be "asking themselves how to do something against the war" in September.
They should waste no time. Remember that if 2005 truly equates to 1968, it could be five years -- 2010 -- before we get the last troops out. The American people will not accept that.
If President Bush means it when he says we will stay and fight in Iraq as long as he is president, there is only one thing that can prevent a Democratic victory in 2008. That is if the Democrats repeat their mistake of 1968 and nominate a candidate who is unwilling to run against the war.
Let's hope we at least learned that lesson.