Six weeks ago, one of the most brilliant observers of our time wrote an essay calling to mind a sorry chapter in American history and warning of its possible repetition in the present conflict in Iraq.
The article, written by John O'Sullivan (search) at the end of July, was entitled "Remember Tet Offensive: Déja Vu." It raised the prospect that we are in danger of allowing defeat to be snatched from decisive American victory over Saddam Hussein's regime -- just as was done 35 years ago by our North Vietnamese and Vietcong enemies. This concern is especially warranted in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell once again persuading President Bush that the United States should seek help on Iraq from, of all places, the United Nations.
In his essay, which was originally distributed by United Press International (of which Mr. O'Sullivan was then editor), the author recalls how the Vietcong (search) used the cover of an important religious holiday, Tet (search), to launch temporarily successful but ultimately, utterly pyrrhic attacks across South Vietnam. The results on the battlefields and in the cities were decisive, with U.S. forces and their South Vietnamese (search) allies triumphant and their foes routed at immense loss of life.
Yet, thanks to the exceedingly negative portrayal of the nature and implications of the Tet Offensive (search) in the American media, this campaign proved a turning point in the war. Its principal strategic objective had been accomplished: to strengthen the hand of the anti-war American left in the campaign to win the war for the Communist North here in the United States.
As Mr. O'Sullivan put it: "The mainstream U.S. media depicted Tet as a severe defeat for the United States and as the beginning of an endless quagmire for American forces. That became the conventional wisdom of both the media and political elites. And as a result, the North Vietnamese eventually triumphed on the only battlefield where the United States could be defeated -- the American home front."
Today, the reporting from Iraq is, if anything, even more defeatist than was true at the time of Tet -- with even less basis in fact for its gloominess. Yes, American servicemen and women are being killed or wounded in small numbers with regrettable frequency. And yes, there have been several successful and murderous attacks by those determined to undo the liberation of Iraq on strategic targets such as U.N. headquarters, an important Shiite (search) mosque and Iraq's economic infrastructure.
Still, seen in perspective, these amount to even more isolated incidents than those associated with Tet. The costs to America and her friends are far smaller, though still acutely painful. To hear the chattering class (search) -- the media and political elite that construed and succeeded in defining the Tet Offensive as a rout for the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies -- tell it, however, Washington now "needs" to be bailed out of a yawning quagmire in Iraq.
In this light, the Bush team's return to the United Nations is portrayed not as evidence of American determination to ensure the liberation of Iraq by enabling others to participate in securing it. Rather, we are endlessly told, the U.S. is effectively admitting the failure of its "go-it-alone" policy and its efforts to stabilize Iraq with the clearly inadequate help of its "Coalition of the Willing."
According to this emerging conventional wisdom, our only hope for preventing another, expensive retreat-under-fire (costly both in terms of dollars and further lives lost), a la Vietnam, is to throw ourselves on the mercy of the U.N., hoping that it will forgive us our trespasses and pull our chestnuts out of the Iraqi fire.
The truth on the ground may be very different at the moment. But as with the aftermath of Tet in 1968, unless it is aggressively publicized and explained, friends and foes alike will be entitled to perceive in the latest Powell U.N. gambit an all-too-familiar symptom of an American administration losing the courage of its convictions -- or at least fearing the imminent loss of elite and popular support necessary to continue to act on those convictions.
Were that to happen, it is predictable that our enemies in the "Sunni Triangle" (search) and elsewhere in Iraq will be encouraged to increase their attacks on Americans and any other targets of opportunity. The logic will be that if this relatively small amount of bloodletting has caused the U.S. to panic and prepare to bail out, a more intensive effort will cause us to do so that much faster.
This logic will, unfortunately, not be lost on others who currently are not part of the problem we face in Iraq. In particular, Iraqis who very much want a different future than the horrible past they experienced under Saddam may decide to hedge their bets. He, or someone as bad as he was, may be back in power shortly and those who helped defeat the Americans are likely to be better treated than those who were on the losing side.
Worse yet, the stakes today extend far beyond Iraq. There is mounting evidence that virulent Islamists, like Usama bin Laden (search) and other terrorists, interpreted the feckless U.S. response to pre-Sept. 11 attacks on this country's interests and assets as proof of our lack of will -- and an invitation to further, and far more deadly, assaults, including in the United States itself.
Should we now be seen -- despite President Bush's robust rhetoric -- to be evincing the sort of irresoluteness that characterized previous strategic defeats and presaged U.S. strategic retreats, heaven help us. It will be open season on American interests and citizens in Iraq and elsewhere around the world.
In particular, our failure to sustain and consolidate our offensive operations against the enemy in the war on terror will greatly increase the probability that we will once again be subjected to their attacks in our own country. The failure of will that set in after Tet had many other terrible costs and repercussions -- most especially for the people we abandoned (notably, POWs, MIAs and, of course, millions of South Vietnamese). A perceived failure of will in the present global conflict, though, stands to cost us dearly in the lives of large numbers of our compatriots here at home.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.