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The image Democrats don't want repeated in Arabic

Democrats’ Saigon Fears
When Even the Left Won’t Quit Iraq

It was 4:30 the morning of April 30, 1975, when the next-to-last helicopter lifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. That helicopter carried Graham Martin, the American ambassador, his aides, two security guards and a missionary couple. Three hours later one last helicopter flew off, carrying the marines who’d stayed behind to keep masses of Vietnamese from rushing the grounds of the embassy. The marines threw tear gas grenades down the elevator shaft as they made their way to the roof. The Vietnamese ignored them. They’d been offended by a lot more in the previous hours as they’d tried to break in, thousands of them looking to be among those chosen to be airlifted out. In all on April 29, 80 American helicopters flew 495 sorties, evacuating 70,000 people out of Saigon. It was a scene of madness and rage—the madness of Vietnamese looking to escape, the rage of U.S. marines pushing them back to their fate while the embassy’s chimneys spewed orange flames and thick smoke: two decades of documents collected since the embassy had opened in 1954 were being hurriedly incinerated before the final lift-off. At 9 p.m., a marine, keeping up tradition, “threatened to blow the head off a young Vietnamese boy” (as Bob Tamarkin would describe it in a dispatch for the Chicago Daily News). “He pointed his .45 automatic at the youth, forcing him to drop the carton of cigarettes he had taken from the storehouse.” An hour later, the marines were walking the same steps, stuffing cartons into their own knapsacks. By midnight, some marines were turning sadistic. One of them stood before the desperate mass of Vietnamese and forced them to sing. Obviously, the Vietnamese didn’t understand. A young Vietnamese boy and a man tried to squeeze through the gate. The marines beat them brutally. (Once a marine, always a marine.) At 5:15 a.m., less than an hour after the ambassador had left, Martin Garrett, the head of security for the embassy, told the remaining three civilians and marines that President Ford had just ordered all evacuations ended: “The pilots have been flying for 14 hours, and the president has ordered the commander of the 78 th fleet to halt operations.” They boarded the last chopper and left. Down below, looters rushed the embassy. Peter Arnett, writing at the time for the Associated Press, had stayed behind. This is what he wrote of that morning’s scene: “The six-story United States embassy in Saigon withstood a determined Communist commando attack in 1968. Five Americans died in its defense. Today thousands of Saigonese took everything from the abandoned embassy, including the kitchen sinks.” (Actually, that’s how the New York Times ran the opening lines, deleting Arnett’s original and irony-leaden phraseology in the second sentence, which read: “Today, without its armed guards, the embassy was no match for thousands of Saigonese getting their last American handout. They took everything…”)

Never mind that the American occupation and American-led destruction of Vietnam, in which more than 2 million Vietnamese perished, had terrorized and traumatized that nation for more than a decade. What traumatized America were those scenes of defeat, surrender and escape from the American embassy on April 30, 1975. What traumatized America wasn’t the human devastation it had inflicted on Vietnam or even, to some extent, the devastation its own soldiers had suffered, but the devastation to its self-image. The United States hadn’t merely lost in Vietnam. It had been thrown out, cast off, defeated by a guerilla army the American military had been busy deriding the last ten years.

This settlement is worse than defeat, worse than surrender, because it accepts as a given the price of defeat—continuing, pointless casualties—without the benefit of defeat’s end-point, without the benefit of stanching the bloodletting and moving on. This is the worst of all possible settlements. And its motive (oiling the palms of America’s war profiteers aside) is nothing less deplorable than preventing another Saigon.

Whether they admit it or not, Democratic hopefuls in the 2008 election see American involvement in Iraq no differently than their Republican opponents do for one overriding reason. They don’t want a repeat of the American retreat from Saigon. They’ll put up with thousands more Iraqi and American deaths. What they won’t put up with is another spectacle of America’s image reduced to that of a lumbering bird being chased off an embassy roof. That fear will prolong the American occupation and the inevitable retreat more devastating than the Vietnam surrender ever was.

Retreat is inevitable. Humiliation shouldn’t have had to be. Nor should calculations to ward off humiliation have been playing such a large role in current American strategy in Iraq—the Bush White House’s as well as that of most presidential hopefuls. But most of American strategy at the moment is geared not toward peace—all sides recognize that peace is unattainable—but toward an untenable status quo: a sort of relative peace imposed by barriers, segregated zones of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and a semi-permanent American presence that polices the un-peace. The objective isn’t to avoid a full-scale war, but to avoid a full-scale American retreat. In other words Americans (Republicans or Democrats, it makes no difference) have settled on accepting Iraq as a nation in permanent shatters and the United States as its permanent overlord in the name of the perpetual war against terror. Better that, at all costs (including the continuing heavy human cost) than sending the impression that the United States would ever retreat again.

This settlement is worse than defeat, worse than surrender, because it accepts as a given the price of defeat—continuing, pointless casualties—without the benefit of defeat’s end-point, without the benefit of stanching the bloodletting and moving on. This is the worst of all possible settlements. And its motive (oiling the palms of America’s war profiteers aside) is nothing less deplorable than preventing another Saigon.

The mania over protecting America’s image in Iraq has already prolonged the war by several years. Voters thought they were electing Democrats to end the charade. They thought so in 2006. They might have thought so as the field of Democratic hopefuls heads for 2008. Instead, they’re getting promises by all three leading candidates—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards—that the American presence must be maintained, for one (idiotic) reason or another.

“We’ve got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq,” John Edwards, allegedly a war opponent, said at the latest Democratic debate. “And we have to be prepared for the worst possibility that you never hear anyone talking about, which is the possibility that genocide breaks out and the Shi’a try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. As president of the United States, I would plan and prepare for all those possibilities.” No, we don’t: a low-grade form of genocide has already taken place and continues to do so. The American presence isn’t stopping it. It’s encouraging it in some ways (always good to have Americans as foil for various factions’ brutality and recruiting), and of course forcing American soldiers to pay the needless price. Full-blown genocide may well explode. But that’s not for the United States to halt, but for other Arab nations and Iran to worry about: Between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s safe to say that both countries would gladly extend their role in Iraq, with the prevention of genocide as their excuse. That threat of genocide may well be the catalyst of a regional solution. But it must be a regional solution, fostered by the players there, not by the United States.

Obama and Clinton are both beating the drums of “bringing the troops home.” But both want to keep forces in Iraq to train Iraqis and fight “terrorism.” So, like Bush, they’re angling for the appearance of a resolution without actually formulating the means and certainty of a resolution. And Democratic and liberal organizations are letting them get away with it. The calculation is simple: better a Democratic president willing to scale down the effort in Iraq than another Republican administration, regardless of what that administration might do there.

Playing the image card in Iraq, playing the strangulating, triangulating card over here. That’s what this presidential race is shaping into. We do have a billion-dollar embassy to protect in Baghdad, after all. And what’s that massive thing all about, if not an homage to America’s image on the world? Fortunately, that embassy compound will have more than a few roofs. It’ll have its own set of helipads.

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