ATLANTA -- It takes world-class chutzpah for President Bush to raise the specter of Vietnam in the current debate over Iraq, but raise it he did. You've got to give it to the guy: He has nerve.
As a young man of draft age during the Vietnam years, Mr. Bush avoided combat by signing up for the Texas Air National Guard. And there is a persuasive body of evidence indicating that he couldn't even be bothered to fulfill those obligations. While he managed to get a transfer to an Alabama National Guard unit - apparently so he could work on the U.S. Senate campaign of an Alabama Republican - several acquaintances from the period don't remember his showing up for his Guard assignments. Nor has the president produced paperwork to confirm that he did.
Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has said that he had "other priorities in the '60s than military service." Shortly after the Selective Service decided to draft married men without children, Lynne Cheney conceived a deferment for her young husband.
Still, last week, Mr. Bush invoked the memory of America's hasty departure from Vietnam to rebuke those who say U.S. troops should leave Iraq.
"Then, as now, people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end. ... The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died," Mr. Bush said in a 45-minute speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
If the president insists on talking about Vietnam, OK, let's have a frank discussion about it. Let's take a hard look at the inescapable similarity between that war and this one. Both were sold to the American people with lies - and perpetuated with lies.
(On the subject of dissembling and distortions, Mr. Bush did a fine job of that in his recent speech. No credible public figure has argued that if U.S. troops leave Iraq, "the killing would end." They've argued, instead, that the Iraqis seem determined to have a civil war, and U.S. troops should not be in the middle of their conflict.)
In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared that North Vietnamese forces had attacked two U.S. destroyers, and he demanded congressional authority to use "all necessary action to protect our armed forces." Congress complied, authorizing the use of military action.
But military historians have long since acknowledged that President Johnson's report was, at best, an exaggeration, and, at worst, a crude pretext for launching a wider war. Similarly, President Bush and his band of chicken hawks built support for the invasion of Iraq on a foundation of half-truths, misstatements and outright lies - including the fabrication of strong ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
There are other similarities underlying our misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, including an arrogant presumption of success, a profound ignorance of a foreign culture and, of course, a steady flow of reports that victory is imminent.
At least the architects of the Vietnam fiasco have mostly owned up to their failures. Robert McNamara, defense secretary from 1961 to 1968, admitted that he and others had concluded years before the war ended that it was probably unwinnable but had never said so publicly. We may never hear a similar admission from the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld axis of incompetence.
In 1971, a disillusioned young veteran named John Kerry offered powerful testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
"Every day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, 'the first president to lose a war.'
"We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
If Mr. Bush wants to compare Iraq with Vietnam, he ought to start with that question.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Chapman's column will return Friday.