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Staying the course... but for how long?

Iraq and Afghanistan are not sprints, but are they marathons?

By Bruce Morton
CNN National Correspondent



As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush urged a modest foreign policy, not nation-building. But that changed once he took office.

"People everywhere," he declared in a national security strategy statement issued in September 2002, "want to be able to speak freely, choose who will govern them, worship as they please...These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society -- and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people."

He struck the same theme in a speech in Kyoto, Japan, on his recent Asian trip: "In the 21st century, freedom is the destiny of every man, woman, and child from New Zealand to the Korean peninsula," which will certainly come as news to, among others, the unelected men who run China.

We are of course nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan and are being told we must not "cut and run" but instead "stay the course." How long is the course? Good question. It isn't the 50-meter dash, that's for sure. The 10-kilometer run? Or maybe a marathon?

We have certainly stayed some courses for a very long time. World War II ended 60 years ago last summer. We still have troops in Japan; we still have troops in Germany. They were there, we were told for years, because of the threat from the Soviet Union, the Cold War. But the Cold War ended 15 years ago, and they are still there. Some of them are part of the NATO force in Bosnia, an exercise in nation-building that may or may not succeed.

The Korean War ended -- in an armistice, not a peace -- more than half a century ago, and we still have troops there. To protect South Korea against Kim Jong Il's repressive North Korea? Maybe. But maybe they could protect themselves.

The one place we didn't stay was Vietnam. We struck a deal to leave and get our prisoners back and the South, as many here expected, collapsed. But the domino theory that was supposed to follow -- Communists conquering nearby countries -- never happened. Their economies mostly boomed, while Vietnam struggled, hobbled by its Marxist ideology. And if we'd stayed in that stalemated war, maybe there'd be more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Wall.

So sometimes staying the course may be a bad idea. Vietnam truly was a stalemate, unwinnable as it was being fought. And it was being fought by an Army of draftees. So was World War II, but that was a fair draft and just about everybody went. Vietnam wasn't.

Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes told CBS recently that he got a number of politically connected young men into the National Guard, where they wouldn't get sent to 'Nam. And he talked about visiting the Vietnam Wall, years later, and looking at all the names, and wondering if he had helped decide who would live and who would die, and wishing he hadn't. But in fact, if you could afford a lawyer, you were probably safe. Or get enough student deferments, or whatever. The vice president and the speaker of the house, along with the president and many others, did not see combat.

So staying the course isn't always wise.

Walking through War Zone C, or whatever, on a sweep, you had to think, hey, we did this last month, we took some hits and so did they. We'll probably do it again next month. How do you win? Is Iraq like that? Hard to say.

In the first place, it's an all-volunteer Army and the ones I've seen, injured men and woman at Walter Reed mostly, are very impressive. They knew what they were signing up for and don't have the kind of complaints draftees might. But Iraq has no practice at democracy, and it's hard to know how long it might take them to turn into one. And even Iraqis -- regular people, not insurgents -- are starting to say the Americans should leave. Maybe we should applaud that.

What we almost surely shouldn't do is stay the course in silence. Criticizing the presidents we had during Vietnam may have shortened that war and saved lives. This time? A woman in Johnstown, Pennsylvania -- the district of Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who favors withdrawal -- said, "Everybody needs to discuss it and not just say he's right because he is the president, because he's not always right." True of most of us. Presidents too, probably.

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