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Iraq War Is Drawing Less Support Than Vietnam Did at Same Stage

By Heidi Przybyla,

May 9 (Bloomberg) -- Three years into major combat in Vietnam, 28,500 U.S. service members had perished, millions of families were anxious about the military draft and antiwar protests had spread to dozens of college campuses.

Today, at the same juncture in the Iraq war, about 2,400 American soldiers have died, the U.S. military consists entirely of volunteers and public dissent is sporadic.

There's one other difference: The war in Iraq is more unpopular than was the Vietnam conflict at this stage, polls show.

More Americans -- 57 percent -- say sending troops to Iraq was a mistake than the 48 percent who called Vietnam an error in April 1968, polls by the Princeton, New Jersey-based Gallup Organization show. That's because more people believed that Vietnam was crucial to U.S. security, scholars say.

``People simply value the stakes much lower in Iraq than they did in Vietnam,'' said John Mueller, a presidential historian at Ohio State University in Columbus. Vietnam ``seemed vital in terms of the Cold War and stopping the communists. People don't see this as an important adventure.''

The poll numbers suggest that President George W. Bush may come under overwhelming pressure from voters to resolve the war, as did President Lyndon B. Johnson 38 years ago, even though both men vowed to stay the course.

``I doubt that he's going to be able to buy very much time at all,'' William Leuchtenburg, a retired historian who taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a past president of the American Historical Association, said of Bush. With no signs of an Iraq policy change, he said, ``Bush and the Republicans will pay a price, particularly in some of the Senate races.''

Congress at Stake

Control of both chambers of Congress is at stake in this November's elections, and any Republican losses will further complicate Bush's ability to continue his Iraq policy.

Already, some Republicans are clamoring for an exit strategy and pressuring party leaders for a chance to discuss the issue. On May 2, House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the House may debate the war for the first time later this year.

As passionate as Americans were about Vietnam, some 12 percent of them had failed to form an opinion about the war by April 1968, according to Gallup data.

Today, just 1 percent of Americans are undecided about Iraq. And disapproval of Bush's decision to invade is 15 percentage points higher than approval, an April 7-9 Gallup poll of 1,004 adults showed. That's twice as wide a gap as on Vietnam at this time four decades ago.

Job Ratings Drop

Bush's job-approval ratings are lower than were Johnson's during the far bloodier Vietnam conflict. Among the reasons: the highly publicized intelligence failures that preceded the Iraq invasion of 2003, the fact that Bush began the war, and the shadow of Vietnam itself, historians say.

From January to July of 1968 Johnson's monthly approval ratings fluctuated at 40 percent or above, with one exception, Gallup polling data show; Bush's approval has been stuck below 40 percent since February of this year, according to several national polls. His rating fell to a record-low 31 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, conducted May 5-7 with USA Today.

Some Republicans say Bush's disapproval ratings on the war may have more to do with the more extensive coverage by the media today than anything else.

``You're not comparing apples to apples,'' said John Brabender, a Republican political consultant in Leesburg, Virginia. ``You did not have cable news or the Internet. What expansive news programming has created is a larger voice for dissent, a larger discussion and a comfort level to express it that you've never seen.''

Flawed Intelligence

Some historians say Bush has met with such resistance because of the flawed intelligence he used to make the case for war. He began the effort focused on former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction; in October 2002, Bush warned of a ``smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.''

No such stocks were ever found, and Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA reports have surfaced saying there was no evidence Iraq was reconstituting its weapons. Bush also sought to tie Hussein's government to the al-Qaeda terror network, a link that's never been substantiated.

The closest parallel in Vietnam was the reports of unprovoked North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those alleged incidents eventually fueled an escalation of the war, with Johnson announcing air strikes in 1965.

Compared with Iraq, ``there weren't such blatantly false assumptions exposed at so early a date,'' Leuchtenburg said.

Full Responsibility

Bush's low approval ratings are also a result of his being given full responsibility for progress or setbacks in Iraq, said Bert Rockman, a presidential scholar at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

``Johnson inherited a problem that came from Eisenhower, through Kennedy to him,'' he said. ``In Bush's case, this was something he created.''

Finally, the legacy of Vietnam is contributing to the current administration's public opinion woes, according to historians. ``The Iraq war stands in the shadow of Vietnam,'' said Robert Dallek, a retired Boston University professor and author of the book ``Lyndon B. Johnson, Portrait of a President,'' published last year. ``They remember that as a quagmire.''

Public Relations

The similarities between Bush and Johnson extend to how the two dealt with their public-approval problems. In November 1967, the Johnson administration launched a public-relations campaign to convince Congress, the press and the public there was progress in Vietnam. Johnson was counseled by advisers to emphasize ``the light at the end of the tunnel.'' While public support rose, it quickly sank in early 1968 as the Viet Cong started what came to be known as the Tet Offensive.

By September 1968, disapproval of the war had risen to levels similar to the dissent over Iraq today, the Gallup data shows.

In a series of speeches last year and early this year, Bush has touted successes in Iraq, including beginning his remarks marking the third anniversary of the invasion on March 19 by saying he's ``encouraged by the progress.''

Bush, like Johnson, has signaled that it will be up to his successors to resolve the war.

He said in a March news conference that complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is an objective that ``will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.''


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