There is a lot of careless talk suggesting that the conflict in Iraq is a replica of the Vietnam war and that the United States is bogged down there in an impossible quagmire.
In fact there are more differences than similarities. In Vietnam the US faced Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military units, whereas in Iraq the enemy is comprised of faceless terrorists.
In Vietnam the terrain over which the war was fought was jungle and subtropical, whereas in Iraq it is largely desert and the fighting is mostly in urban areas. Though the loss of American soldiers is to be deplored under any circumstances, the fatalities in Iraq are far less than those in Vietnam.
In Vietnam the enemy was inspired by a nationalistic bid to seize territory and install a socialist regime, whereas the enemy in Iraq is motivated by a perversion of Islamic dogma and a fanatical intent to impose it upon an entire region.
But in one important respect, the immediate goal of the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq is the same as was the goal of the enemy in Vietnam. It is to erode the will of the United States and trigger a premature withdrawal of its military forces. In both cases, the enemy was, or is, using methods of violence to achieve a clear political end.
In Iraq the hope of the enemy is that the American public will grow tired of the continuing casualties and the lengthy political maneuvering over the formation of a new government, and put such pressure upon the Bush administration to withdraw American troops that President Bush would be unable to resist it.
It seems to me that we may be nearing the cusp, or the tipping point, of this debate in the US. Democrats, and some Republicans, are doing a lot of handwringing over the state of progress in Iraq, although Democrats in particular are weighing the political consequences of attacking a wartime president.
Mr. Bush concedes mistakes have been made, and indeed they have been, notably in the postwar political and economic reconstruction of Iraq, rather than in the actual military campaign to free it from Saddam Hussein's grip. However, from 9/11 onward, Bush has warned that the campaign against terrorism would be a long one. In his press conference last week he even went as far as suggesting that it might be another successor president and another Iraqi government that might decide when the last American troops would leave Iraq.
What Bush has not been wrong about is his passion for the promotion of democracy in Iraq and countries elsewhere to whose people it has been denied. He said last week that if the US failed in its effort to establish a free and stable Iraq, he would bring US troops home.
Victory in consolidating freedom in Iraq would be an example that would inspire hope for freedom in countries elsewhere in the Middle East. It might not always be easily attained. It might not be patterned after the Jeffersonian democracy of the US. But it would bring light to many who presently struggle in the darkness of dictatorship.
The consequences of failure would be far-reaching. It would dash the hope for democracy for millions and stifle the stirrings that are taking place among their leaders and intellectuals in Islamic countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and even Syria and Iran.
Some Americans are beginning to question whether democracy can take root in some of these lands.
A new survey by the Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research, in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests there are new and substantial public doubts about the role of the US in promoting democracy. The survey says a majority of Americans think democracy is something that countries can only come to on their own and when they are ready for it.
Have they forgotten Poland and South Africa and the Philippines and South Korea and Nicaragua and Ukraine and a string of other countries where the support and pressure from America and other Western countries sped brave forces for freedom on their way?
George Bush may be faulted for some things but not his belief that freedom is God-given for all people. It is not inappropriate that America, founded on the cornerstone of freedom, should seek to extend it to others presently less fortunate.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.