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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Midterms '06: The Return of the "Vietnam Syndrome"

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After sending 58,000 of our soldiers to their deaths in Vietnam, and absorbing the costly impact of 250,000 wounded veterans, Americans were determined to never let it happen again. Elite foreign policy planners called this sentiment the "Vietnam Syndrome." It was the deep understanding that after Vietnam the American people would never again accept an open-ended war abroad that dragged on with ill-defined objectives and no end in sight. To get around the American people's aversion to Vietnam-typed military endeavors, Colin Powell, when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formulated his famous doctrine. The "Powell Doctrine" stipulated that employing the following could lick the Vietnam Syndrome:

1). Use "Overwhelming Force" at the onset, (unlike trickling in troops as LBJ had done in Vietnam);
2). Have a "Clear and Limited Geopolitical Objective" that is achievable quickly, (preferably with the support of other nations in the region);
3). Have a well-defined "Exit Strategy" because the longer U.S. troops remained in harm's way the more likely the American people would turn against the war.

In 1991, after the "Powell Doctrine" was successfully applied in Iraq with Operation Desert Storm, then President George Herbert Walker Bush, after witnessing his approval-rating jump to 90 percent, triumphantly declared the Vietnam Syndrome to be forever cured.

But in March 2003, George W. Bush violated all three of the central tenets of the Powell Doctrine: he went into Iraq with underwhelming force, had no clear geopolitical objective, and no exit strategy.

The 2006-midterm elections reasserted the conventional wisdom that had stood for over twenty-five years, namely: the American people will not accept an open-ended, ill-defined military adventure that drags on with no end in sight. At some point, they will turn against the leaders responsible for the bloody mess, (just as they had done against LBJ, which destroyed his presidency). Richard Nixon's presidency was also a failure, in part, because he chose the path of an excruciatingly slow de-escalation of the war where an additional 20,000 Americans died needlessly in Vietnam.

The Midterm elections show the Vietnam Syndrome is still alive. If Bush II and Karl Rove had even a miniscule understanding of recent history they would have known their imperial adventure in Iraq would eventually lose the support of the American people. There might be a new Defense Secretary and the phrase "Stay the Course" has been abandoned, but the debilitating occupation of Iraq continues with no end in sight.

The GOP darling, John McCain, is already trying to put daylight between himself and Bush's disastrous policy in Iraq. As Vietnam vets, McCain and Powell should have known better. McCain had been a cheerleader for the war from the start, and he never challenged in a serious way any of Bush's abuses of power. (Powell, as Secretary of State, did more to sell the war to the world community than any other individual.) Now, McCain is hinting that he wants to send more troops to Iraq; apparently he doesn't realize that the war in Iraq is already lost. The only choice for the United States now is either to escalate the war with an "overwhelming force" of 500,000 troops and attempt to disarm the militias, (which is an option that no American would support), or to get out now.

When General Casey or others say they believe the situation in Iraq will improve over the next "twelve to eighteen months," what they are really saying is that another 1,200 or 1,800 Americans are going to die. The midterms were a referendum on the Iraq War, and 6.8 million people nationwide voted for the Democrats over the Republicans. It is time our political leaders heed the wishes of the American people and redeploy our soldiers out of Iraq now. We must not allow Bush to do what Nixon did and sentence thousands more to die because of imperial hubris and a stubborn refusal to accept reality.