Iraq is the New Korea

by Laura Snedeker

It’s not often that a president invokes the Korean War, but in his speech earlier this week to troops at Fort Irwin, California, President George Bush did just that:

“You know, after the Korean War, if you had asked somebody, can you imagine an American president being able to stand up in front of some troops and say the Far East is peaceful, a part of the world where we lost thousands of our troops in World War II and Korea is now a relatively peaceful part of the world, they would have said what a hopeless idealist that person is. And yet, I can report to you that. And I believe it is because our troops not only helped in Korea and helped rebuild Japan, but I believe it's because the presence of the United States gave breathing space to people to realize the blessings of liberty.”

Ah, Korea. That was the war with Alan Alda, right?

Apparently President Bush isn’t familiar with the Korean War, but luckily for him, neither are most Americans, in part because it preceded the much longer and more controversial Vietnam War and in part because the McCarthyite witch hunts prevented people from speaking out against the more than 30,000 American dead and one-million-plus Korean dead.

Despite the war’s relatively non-controversial status, perhaps Korea isn’t quite the ideal analogy he thinks it is. The Korean War didn’t produce a winner and a loser, but rather an enduring stalemate, and a Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South. Or perhaps that’s the vision Mr. Bush sees for Iraq: Three separate countries, one for the Shi’ites, one for the Sunnis, and one for the Kurds, separated by a barbed wire fence and hostile armed guards.

And when the president speaks of “giving breathing space to people to realize the blessings of liberty,” he surely can’t be referring to the succession of dictatorships that ruled South Korea with an iron fist until 1987. Is that also part of his vision for Iraq? A dictatorship governed by corrupt officials backed with money from the United States government?

Or consider the 20,000-plus American troops still stationed in South Korea, ostensibly warding off a North Korean attack. Despite the government’s assertions to the contrary, shall U.S. troops still occupy Iraq in 50 years, protecting it from an Iranian invasion?

President Bush has fiercely denied any similarities between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, because that war was so long, so deadly, and caused so much unrest. Like any good patriotic politician, he’s played up similarities to World War II and frequently compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, trying to rally the same kind of support for the Iraq War (and the so-called “War on Terror”) by comparing the rise of fundamentalist Islam and terrorism in the Middle East to the rise of fascism in Europe.

His appropriation of the Korean War is then based on Americans’ presumed ignorance. While Americans may not know much about the war itself, they’re aware of the continuing presence of American troops and of North Korea’s nuclear program (maybe we should ask the North Koreans and the Iranians whether their proximity to heavily armed U.S. military bases affected their nuclear ambitions). Americans are wary of a long, drawn-out Vietnam-style quagmire, and they should be equally wary of the prospect of American soldiers standing on guard in Iraq for the next fifty years.

(The photo of President Bush meeting with troops at Ft. Irwin is an official White House photo by Eric Draper; the photo is in the public domain.)

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