President Barack Obama recently announced that we will withdraw our combat forces from Iraq in eighteen months. Very good! This war should never have been started in the first place. George W. Bush holds the unique distinction of being the only U. S. president who actually looked for a war. Dick Cheney stacked their administration with neoconservatives who were eager to invade Iraq at the first opportunity.
“Bush’s War” was first known as “Rumsfeld’s War” after the Secretary of Defense. Mr. Bush never seemed to be running the executive branch. That’s one reason he was never held accountable for his administration’s documented 935 lies that got us into Iraq or for the gross mismanagement of the war. It was only after Bush’s Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in 2006 that Bush showed signs of asserting himself as president. That’s when he marginalized his powerful vice president, removed the incompetent Donald Rumsfeld, and belatedly sent additional troops to Iraq to help stabilize the violence.
Other wars that have been used as precedents for Bush’s invasion of Iraq have also had questionable pretexts. For example, in hindsight the Mexican War has always been hard to justify – except that we liked what we got from it: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.
When James K. Polk, Democrat from Kentucky, ran for the presidency, he promised to annex Texas into the Union. Since President John Tyler annexed Texas as he left office in 1845, Polk only needed to negotiate with Mexico to determine the southern border of Texas. Was it the traditional border of the Nueces River or was it the Rio Grande, which was more geographically advantageous for the U.S.? In between those two rivers was “No Man’s Land.”
When an American patrol, led by future president Zachary Taylor, was attacked in “No Man’s Land” by a Mexican patrol, Polk claimed that “American blood had been shed on American soil.” War fever swept our land! A young Abraham Lincoln was skeptical. As the House representative from his district in Illinois, Mr. Lincoln was serving his only two-year term on the national level – before becoming president 14 years later. He issued the “Spot Resolution,” in which he questioned whether the location of the attack on Taylor’s men was officially American soil.
Neither patrol should have been where it was. Nevertheless, Mexican troops did attack and kill Americans, and Congress did declare war. That was much more similar to our invasion of Afghanistan than to our invasion of Iraq. Remember, the suicidal and cold-blooded murderers who destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11 were agents of a criminal conspiracy by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida that was based in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban rulers of that country. So, our invasion of Afghanistan was clearly justified and had world-wide support. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. From the Illinois legislature, Barack Obama, an admirer of Lincoln, openly opposed our invasion of Iraq when more prominent Democratic leaders feared to do so.
Much more similar to Iraq was Lyndon B. Johnson’s misguided escalation in 1964 of our involvement in Vietnam. Just like Mr. Bush’s make-believe weapons of mass destruction and lies about Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaida and 9/11, the Vietnam disaster was caused by an attack that probably never took place.
On August 2, 1964, the destroyer “Maddox” was attacked by several North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Tonkin Gulf. Since it was a clear victory for the U. S. and no damage was done to our vessel or crew, the White House chose not to make a big deal out of it. Unfortunately, on the next night we intercepted radio signals that were interpreted to indicate another planned attack on the “Maddox.” The result was total chaos during a stormy night with all sorts of evasive action and firing taking place. Nevertheless, on August 4 the destroyer’s commander, Capt. John Herrick, had serious doubts whether there had really been an attack.
In his superb biography, “LBJ: Architect of American Ambition,” historian Randall Woods explained it this way: “…midlevel officials in the National Security Administration [NSA], responsible for monitoring communications between North Vietnamese shore bases and their vessels at sea, had made numerous egregious translation errors. They subsequently falsified their intelligence reports, the reports that [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and the [Joint] Chiefs were relying on, to make it appear that a second attack had occurred on the night of the 3rd when it had not.”
Tragically, the Johnson administration learned that the news media had picked up the story of an attack. Normally, that would be good, but this was an election year. The Democrats didn’t want Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and the Republican right-wing playing the fear card that they had used so effectively since World War II. (Richard Nixon and Senator Joe McCarthy led the charges that Democrats were soft on communism and couldn’t be trusted to defend America – much like Dick Cheney is currently doing against the Obama administration.)
Hence, based on misinformation that had been “guaranteed” by the NSA and not wanting to be accused of being weak and indecisive, LBJ asked Congress to approve the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It allowed the president to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
The military began to ask for more troops. Within a year, 30,000-plus “advisers” had become 150,000 combatants. A distraught LBJ told McNamara, “…when we asked for this resolution, we had no intention of committing this many ground troops.” Unlike Mr. Bush, LBJ had no pre-determined plan to expand the war. By the time he left office in 1969, we had over 500,000 troops bogged down in the jungles of Vietnam. It not only broke the man and destroyed his presidency, but nearly 30,000 had died, and many more were seriously wounded. (President Nixon continued the war four more years with 30,000 more deaths.)
Sen. Richard Russell (Dem., Georgia) said to LBJ: “I told John McCone [CIA director] he ought to get somebody to run that country [South Vietnam] who didn’t want us there…then…we could get out with good grace.” While Mr. Obama was campaigning for president and offering his plan to withdraw American troops, he had the good fortune to have the Iraqi government ask the U. S. to leave! He seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity. Too late for over 4000 dead and thousands more seriously injured.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published April 3, 2009,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.