Columns » Warwick Sabin

Waiting for Fulbright

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There are plenty of similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam, from the way our political leaders overrule the military commanders to the lack of a clear exit strategy. But the most important likeness can be found in how the conflicts started. In both cases, our nation acted pre-emptively in service to an idea, rather than defensively in reaction to aggression. In Vietnam, the idea was that Communism was spreading outward from its power centers in the Soviet Union and China. We had to stop this “domino effect” of Communist domination before it reached our shores. So when Communist rebels threatened to take over a small Southeast Asian country, the idea men argued that it was in our interest to get involved. A few decades later, the idea men were certain that it was in our interest to overthrow Saddam Hussein and establish a democratic government in Iraq. It would be a way to establish a foothold in a strategic region, protect our allies (like Israel) and confront our enemies (like Iran). Unfortunately for idea men, ideas are complicated. It’s hard to get the average Joe to understand why he should send his son or daughter to fight in a faraway land for an abstract concept. The United States doesn’t go around starting wars like some kind of imperial power, so the idea men need to find creative ways to build widespread support for their projects. The Johnson administration solved this problem in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the American people were told that the Viet Cong rebels launched an unprovoked attack against two U.S. destroyers. It wasn’t until years later that the episode was found to have been exaggerated, if not entirely invented. But it served its purpose of inflaming the public, and Congress immediately passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon Johnson broad powers to use military force in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war, leading to a protracted conflict. More recently, the Bush administration sent then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations in 2002 to present “evidence” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in violation of international sanctions. Shortly thereafter, Congress gave President George W. Bush authorization to attack Iraq. Not one weapon of mass destruction has yet been found. You would think that, now recognizing the obvious parallels with Vietnam, some lawmakers would speak strongly and decisively against our continued presence in Iraq. You would think that they would respect the lessons of history and want to spare our nation the lost lives, billions of dollars and domestic upheaval caused by a war dishonestly packaged and incompetently managed. However, many of the congressional representatives who might be inclined to oppose the war are paralyzed by their vote for the Iraq resolution. They know that critics will call them hypocrites if they say something now. But in this, too, they ignore history, which demonstrates that there is no dishonor in turning against a decision that was based on misleading information. For strength they can look to the example of U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not only voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he introduced it, because Johnson asked him to. This did not stop him from becoming an initial lone dissenter as the U.S. sent more troops to Vietnam. In fact, he became increasingly furious as he realized that he was duped into helping escalate the conflict, and he opened hearings in 1968 to investigate the Tonkin incident. It took tremendous courage to stand up to a president in the same political party during an era when being against a war was almost universally considered unpatriotic and counter-cultural. It should take far less courage for Democratic senators in 2005 to take a stand against the bungled effort in Iraq and call for hearings to look into the deceptive Iraq weapons claims. Like Fulbright, they should be indignant that their willingness to believe the president was so cynically manipulated. Fulbright’s seat is now occupied by U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who presided over the Senate vote on the Iraq resolution, voted for it and read aloud the results. Is she indignant?

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