- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

By all objective criteria, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, from Jan. 31, 1968, to April 6, 1968, was a smashing loss for the North Vietnamese, and a major victory for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. The North lost some 40,000 Viet Cong and regular troops in just a few weeks. American losses were a small percentage of that.

Yet, many historians and most observers at the time, identify the Tet Offensive as the beginning of the end for the U.S. effort in Vietnam. American troop withdrawals accelerated rapidly thereafter, as did a political withdrawal plan.

Why? What was it that turned what should have been a major victory into an embarrassing defeat? One word — perception.

Reality aside, Americans began to perceive the United States was losing control of the situation in Vietnam. The U.S. Embassy in the heart of Saigon was attacked, for the first time in the war. And even though the attack was repulsed, the embassy attack was played and replayed on stateside television. Similarly, in the provincial capital of Hue, even though American Marines defeated their Viet Cong and North Vietnamese adversaries, they did so only after a series of necessary but highly destructive and bloody house-to-house battles televised repeatedly back home.

Despite an enemy kill ratio of nearly 35:1, probably most Americans who viewed television coverage of the battle for Hue, or who read major newspaper accounts thereof, got the impression we had suffered a major defeat.

At what point does the reality of a military situation take a back seat to perception? When does the balance tip? Have we reached — or are we in danger of reaching — that point in Iraq?

Events of the past month present a disturbing scenario for the administration, one it must quickly and decisively counter, unlike the manner in which an earlier wartime president, Lyndon B. Johnson, seemed himself to buy into the defeatist attitude portrayed after the Tet Offensive.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has left many observers with the impression — accurate or not — that our chain of command is disjointed, our troop discipline falling apart and the coordination of our military and civilian (read, “intelligence”) effort nonexistent. The impression is rampant, especially on the front pages of many newspapers, that our government is no longer in control of our own side (much less the enemy).

Where is Paul Bremer, ubiquitous when a success is to be heralded yet hardly seen in recent weeks? Where are the symbols of our unity and resolve? A hurried trip to Baghdad by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an obvious effort to shore up sagging morale (which only highlighted that morale was sagging)? Hardly the stuff of substance. The beheading of civilian Nick Berg? While many questions remain surrounding this incident, its fault clearly cannot be laid at the feet of the U.S. Yet, it remains another Page One news story seeming to scream at the reader, “Events are controlling us, not we them.”

The latest headline story contributing to the notion Iraq is in disarray just five weeks before the date of the “transfer” of “power” to the Iraqis, is that involving Ahmed Chalabi. This story on the surface appears favorable to the American effort — the investigation of alleged corruption in the Iraqi Governing Coalition in advance of the June 30 “transfer.”

In fact, however, it raises a host of new questions about our effort. Most importantly, do we even know what’s going on?

Until recently, Mr. Chalabi was America’s fair-haired boy; the darling of the neoconservatives who, also until recently, rode high atop President Bush’s soaring poll numbers (but many of whom now, if not jumping ship, are at least donning life vests).

For years, Mr. Chalabi grew rich with the active support and protection of the U.S. government. He was widely rumored to be in line as the first, post-Coalition Provisional Authority head of state. The logical question to ask — and which is being asked widely and publicly — is, if he is so corrupt as to warrant the seizure of all his worldly papers, how did he fool us so long?

In the alternative, since stories of Mr. Chalabi’s corruption were widespread for many years, if in fact we were willing to overlook these allegations so long, what has now caused us to change course and suddenly dump an ally overboard? Either question leads not to answers but a further string of awkward inquiries. And, the timing couldn’t be worse; yet we were in charge of the timing.

This series of occurrences (along with others) collectively paint a scenario eerily similar to that presented LBJ a generation and a half ago. We should be thankful George W. Bush does not appear to have become immobilized by self-doubt and uncertainty as did his Johnson in 1968 (if anything, Mr. Bush may possess a tad too much self-righteousness).

However, the president’s recent speech to the Army War College was far too thin on specifics, and far too vague a road map, with which to put to rest the country’s doubts about our post-“mission accomplished” strategy. Those doubts, now surfacing with increased frequency and boldness, can eat away at a presidency as surely today as they did 36 years ago.

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International.

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