BY: Charles Krauthammer
The Washington Post, April 19, 1991
“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” — George Bush, March 1,
“The United States is not going to intervene militarily in Iraq’s internal affairs and risk being
drawn into a Vietnam-style quagmire.” — George Bush, April 16, 1991
A month ago, George Bush triumphantly declared the Vietnam syndrome dead. Today, he is its
chief purveyor. “Vietnam” is his preferred retort to those who fault him for not having used
American air power to tilt the balance of the Iraqi civil war, when there was a balance to tilt. (The
argument is now, sadly, historical.)
But postwar Iraq was not remotely like Vietnam. Its army had been crushed and humiliated. It
was being stretched to the breaking point by a massive popular rebellion, a two-front Tet. The
United States not only had total control of the air but, in contrast to Vietnam, had effectively
destroyed enemy air defenses, vastly reducing the risk of any air action.
No one was calling for a renewed ground war. There was no need for one. The Shiites in the
south and Kurds in the north were already providing it. And there was no need to win hearts and
minds over to the American cause. Quite the contrary. The rebels were desperate to win
America’s heart and mind over to their cause. They failed.
There were arguments to be made against U.S. intervention. But the president did not make
them. He simply raised the specter of Vietnam, an analogy without substance, and let its signal
power, the power of fear and defeatism, do the rest. Bush did not just prove that the Vietnam
syndrome lives. He gave it new life.
Perhaps the most important effect (on America) of the Persian Gulf War was to give a new
generation of Americans a sense that we could be again what we had been in World War II and
throughout most of this century: liberators. America the liberator is well-known to the French,
Italians, Koreans, Filipinos — millions still bless the day that American troops marched into their
towns and villages — but not to young Americans. They know only Vietnam.
The ultimate antidote to the Vietnam syndrome was the image of February 28, 1991: American
Marines landing by helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in newly liberated Kuwait
City. It was a mirror image of the pictures of April 30, 1975: American helicopters in Saigon
lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy in panic and retreat.
Now, we have been extraordinarily generous to those people we have failed: Hungarians,
Cubans, Southeast Asians whom we have accepted in great numbers as refugees. But the gulf war
promised to renew the traditional vision of America not just as comforter of refugees but as
liberator of peoples.
After liberating Kuwait, however, President Bush declined the opportunity afforded us by our
total control of the air to liberate Iraq. The human catastrophe that resulted from this decision has
moved him to assume the role of warden of the starving Kurds. This instant transformation from
liberator to relief worker is a return to our Vietnam role: looking after the pathetic victims of yet
another foreign failure.
Bush’s back-to-Vietnam postwar performance is an enormous disappointment. But it has also
become the occasion for some cheap rhetoric. The agony of the Kurds has brought forth a chorus
of I-told-you-sos from his erstwhile antiwar critics. Their smugness is unseemly, a product of an
acute memory lapse. These critics, today so publicly moved by the plight of the Kurds, were three
months ago quite prepared to consign Kuwait to the fate they now bemoan in Kurdistan: brutal
repression, massacre and extinction.
Didn’t we warn you, say the critics, that wars have unintended consequences and that the results
of this war would be so messy as to vitiate any of its possible gains?
In the first place, the primary gains of the war — the liberation of Kuwait and the destruction of
Iraq’s potential for aggression — remain. In the second place, the antiwar critics had warned not
just of bad consequences from the war, but of very specific bad consequences: Arabs rising up
against America, a wave of radicalism sweeping the Islamic world; America isolated, Saddam a
hero; victory on the battlefield, defeat in the political arena of the Middle East.
All nonsense. In fact, precisely the opposite has occurred. The turmoil that followed the war
was not anti-American but anti-Saddam. Shiites fired not on American tanks, but on Saddam’s.
Some are lying down in front of American tanks to stop them from leaving occupied Iraq.
The only complaint about America amid the great turmoil is not that we hit Saddam too hard
but that we didn’t hit him hard enough. The worldwide demonstrations today are not at the
American Embassy, but, from New York to New Delhi, at the Iraqi Embassy. They call for
America not to quit Iraq but to liberate it.
This is hardly the kind of turmoil that the critics were predicting. It is precisely because, in
direct contradiction to the critics, the war gave America a position of prestige and influence
unrivaled in the modern history of the Middle East, that there is so much disappointment with our
postwar timidity and restraint.
This is hardly Bush’s finest hour. But it is certainly no vindication for his antiwar critics. Had we
followed them, Saddam would have the run not just of much of Kurdistan, but of all of Iraq, all of
Kuwait and, eventually, all of Arabia too.