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Some analysts see Iraq war eclipsing toll from Vietnam

Call stakes higher in region with oil

WASHINGTON -- President Bush recently said that "there's a lot of differences" between the current war in Iraq and the Vietnam War.

As fighting in Iraq enters its fifth year, an increasing number of specialists in foreign policy and national strategy are contending that the biggest difference might be that the Iraq war will inflict greater damage to US interests than Vietnam did.

"In terms of the consequences of failure, the stakes are much bigger than Vietnam," said William Cohen, a former defense secretary . "The geopolitical consequences are . . . potentially global in scope."

About 17 times as many US troops died in the Vietnam War -- the longest war in US history -- as have been lost in Iraq, the nation's third-longest war. Also, despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, the debate over it has not convulsed American society to the extent seen during the Vietnam conflict.

However, Vietnam does not have oil and is not in the middle of a region crucial to the global economy, nor is it festering with terrorism, analysts say, leading many of them to conclude that the long-term effects of the Iraq war will be worse for the United States.

"It makes Vietnam look like a cakewalk," said retired Air Force General Charles Wald, a veteran of the Vietnam War. The domino theory that nations across Southeast Asia would go communist was not fulfilled, he added, but with Iraq, "worst-case scenarios are the most likely thing to happen."

Iraq is worse than Vietnam "in so many ways," agreed Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and author of one of the most respected studies of the US military's failure in Vietnam. "We knew what we were getting into in Vietnam. We didn't here."

Also, President Nixon used diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union to exploit the split between them and minimize the fallout of Vietnam.

By contrast, Krepinevich said, the Bush administration has magnified the problems of Iraq by neglecting public diplomacy in the Muslim world and by not developing a domestic energy policy to reduce the significance of Middle Eastern oil.

In strategic terms, the Vietnam conflict was understood even by many opponents as part of a global stance of containment, a policy that preceded the war and endured for 15 years after Saigon fell, noted retired Army Colonel Richard Sinnreich, a veteran of two Vietnam tours of duty.

"I'm not sure we can count on a similarly prompt strategic recovery this time around," he said.

Not everyone agrees that Iraq's damage to the United States will exceed that of Vietnam's.

Cornell University historian Fredrik Logevall, who has studied the origins of the Vietnam War, said he hears the argument frequently from both supporters and opponents of the Iraq war, but he doesn't agree, because it is based on predictions rather than facts.

Although both conflicts were "wars of choice" that frustrated and angered Americans, Vietnam caused far more death and destruction, he said. "It's hard to see how it's worse at present."

But those on the other side say their view is warranted.

"I think the hangover from this war will be at least as bad as Vietnam and wouldn't be surprised by a growing movement toward retrenchment and isolationism," said Erin M. Simpson, a counterinsurgency specialist at Harvard University.