Vietnam Syndrome

VIETNAM SYNDROME….Matt Yglesias responds to a Max Boot op-ed complaining that if we leave Iraq it will embolden al-Qaeda:

It continues to astound me how focused conservative thinkers are on purely subjective factors as key influences on events in the world. Does it really make sense to think that the main thing we should worry about is that al-Qaeda operatives will get bolder? (for the thousandth time, they seem pretty bold already) The Iraq War is, in an objective sense, squandering American resources and degrading the operational effectiveness of the U.S. security services while also, in an objective sense, bolstering al-Qaeda manpower. This sort of thing — the impact of our policies on the real world — seems much more important to me than the subjective emotional state of hard-core killers.

The answer here, it seems, is Vietnam Syndrome. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of the country has gotten over Vietnam — as witnessed by wide public support for our subsequent military interventions in Granada, Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and other places. The big exception is conservatives like Boot, who remain convinced to this day that our withdrawal from Vietnam was responsible for virtually every geopolitical problem we’ve faced since. They are obsessed by the idea that we could have won in Vietnam after all if only we’d had the willpower, and that if we had won there would have been no Cambodia, no oil shock, no hostages in Iran, no Afghanistan, and no al-Qaeda. We’d be masters of the universe.

This is crazy, of course: virtually every Vietnam-related problem we had was caused by the fact that we stayed there too long, not that we got out too soon. But conservatives, and especially neocons like Boot, for whom Vietnam is the defining event of the second half of the 20th century, have never accepted that. They’re continually haunted by our “defeat” in Vietnam and have built it up into a fantastical superstructure that explains everything that came afterward.

So what will it take for them to get over this? Beats me. There’s probably no hope until an entire generation dies off and gets replaced by conservatives for whom Vietnam is just a word in the history books. And maybe not even then. After all, Boot himself was only six years old when Saigon fell, and he hasn’t gotten over it.

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