Even George Bush now acknowledges there may be a similarity between the present situation in Iraq and the Tet offensive mounted by Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam in early 1968.
There is also a difference, however. The Tet offensive was militarily defeated by the US. Politically, however, it was an immense defeat for the US, convincing much of the US establishment that the Vietnam War could not be won.
The present state of the war in Iraq is worse. The US isn’t even winning militarily.
The US military spokesman in Iraq, Major General William B Caldwell IV, admitted on Friday of last week that the US strategy, adopted in the summer, of concentrating troops in Baghdad to “clear and hold” neighbourhoods “has not met with our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence”.
Not only has there been a “disheartening” increase in violence in Baghdad but, according to the New York Times, “General Caldwell suggested that the increased American troop presence had acted as a spur to the attacks.”
Where the present situation does resemble Tet is that wide sections of the US establishment now accept that Bush has failed in Iraq.
Indeed, Richard Haas, director of policy planning at the state department under Colin Powell, wrote in the Financial Times last week that “the American era in the region has ended”.
But the Middle East is too important for US global power for the US simply to abandon it. So a feverish debate has developed in the US ruling class about alternative strategies.
Occupying centre stage is Jim Baker, a leading figure in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush, and a Republican Party fixer. Baker is the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a special commission of senior Republican and Democratic figures that is due to report after the Congressional elections on 7 November.
In a recent interview Baker said, “I think it’s fair to say that our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives…of ‘stay the course’ and ‘cut and run’.”
In other words, Baker thinks the current policy has failed, but is against just getting out of Iraq.
One alternative canvassed by the senior Democratic senator Jo Biden might be called the Yugoslav solution—carving Iraq up into autonomous Kurdish, Shia and Sunni regions.
Baker rejects this solution on the grounds that it would “trigger a huge civil war because the major cities in Iraq are mixed”.
I’m sufficiently cynical to believe that, if it suited Washington, the process of ethnic cleansing would be allowed to escalate and partition the country. But while this worked in the interest of the US in the Balkans, it wouldn’t in Iraq.
Partitioning Iraq would tip the southern half of the country, where the Shia majority live, even further towards their co-religionists in Iran.
Intriguingly, however, Baker himself seems to favour talking to the Islamic Republican regime in Tehran and its close ally, the Syrian regime.
And here there is a Vietnam precedent. An earlier Republican president, Richard Nixon, sought to contain the defeat in Vietnam by allying itself to its supposed ideological antithesis, the regime of Mao Zedong in China. This diplomatic revolution allowed the US to bring China into the balance against Vietnam and its main backer, Russia.
There is no evidence that the leading figures in the Bush administration have the ideological or strategic flexibility to cut a deal with the rulers of Iran and Syria—states that they have vilified as members of the “axis of evil”.
In the short term, at least, the outcome of the midterm elections will probably be decisive.
“If the Democrats win, the pressure on Mr Bush to start drawing down the troops could be overwhelming,” a member of the ISG told the Financial Times. “If the Republicans retain control of Congress, you could see more US troops sent there in a last-ditch effort to stabilise the violence.”
Both options seem like alternative routes to the same endgame—a defeat for the US in Iraq that may even dwarf its humiliation in Vietnam.