Saturday, December 09, 2006

Iraq Study May be Walter Cronkite of This War

James Fallows raises an interesting point about the Iraq Study Group report in the December 7 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. Fallows suggests the report will signal a critical turning point in public support for the war, analogous to impact of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite's turn against the war in 1968:

There is a very good chance that the Iraq Study Group will be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. As the oldest one-third or so of Americans can remember directly, and as others have heard, Walter Cronkite himself had a huge impact on domestic support for the Vietnam war. Cronkite was then the anchor of the CBS Evening News. The CBS Evening News was then something “everybody” watched or knew about. Cronkite traveled to Vietnam after the Tet offensive in early 1968, and broadcast on his return his conclusion that, while the U.S. had not “lost” in Vietnam, it could not expect to “win.” In a mere 500 words, he crystalized or catalyzed a broader American sense that American strategy was not working. The transcript of his commentary, here, stands up better than most things said and thought in 1968 (yes, notwithstanding the later analysis that Tet was a battlefield defeat, though a strategic victory, for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese). And passages like this one could be pasted right into the Iraq Study Group report:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

Cronkite did not change America’s view of Vietnam by himself. Political campaigns were raging at that same time, and within six weeks Lyndon Johnson would, in effect, abdicate by saying that he would not run for re-election. The Iraq Study Group will not change America’s view of the Iraq war by itself. The political shifts of the last six months, and the election results last month, play an enormous part. But Cronkite’s broadcast is remembered because it legitimized a change in view; and I suspect that the Study Group’s report will be remembered in the same way.

I wonder if this is an appropriate comparison, or is the Chronkite analogy just of the neat coincidence type? One could argue that the bottom for public backing on Iraq fell out long ago. Thus, the Baker Commission and its report reflect more a reaction to declining public support rather than a catalyst, as Chronkite's news reporting in the Vietnam case surely was.

Not only that, there is some revisionist historical research suggesting that Vietnam was a necessary war, fought to protect America's strategic interests within the larger political and military struggle of Cold War. The Vietnam War, according to revisionist interpretations, was bungled by political contraints and military mistakes. An interesting revisionist polemic is found in Michael Lind's, Vietnam: The Necessary War, but see also the recent major academic contribution from Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.

We cannot know what will become of Iraq in the future. In the decades ahead, though, when the Iraqi democratic regime is consolidated and contributing to the advancement of political freedom in the region, the Bush policy of regime change may be looked upon in a much more favorable light.

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