I've been reading up on the Tet offensive in Vietnam, and I think that the outraged reaction of any conservative to the comparison is largely based on the assumption that the Vietnam War was actually worth fighting in the first place. As a proxy war between superpowers, we were suckered into sending our men to fight their proxies. So there is grounds to reject the specific analogy to Iraq.
However, there is one aspect of the Tet offensive that does have relevance. After long years of war, the Vietnamese were able to strike in a massive, coordinated, and systematic manner. They lost, but the point was that all the effort until that point had not sapped them of the ability to try.
What Tet seemed to prove was that we could not defeat the North Vietnamese... at worst, we could only kill them. Therein lies a philosophical difference between conservative pro-war hawks and liberal pro-war hawks - the former equate those outcomes. The Tet offensive did not sap the public's will to fight, it revealed the competenency of the Administration to wage the war as the illusion it was.
I believe our troops can win, but I don't define "win" as "completely dominate the Sunni Triangle by sheer force of arms." I define "win" as "convince the Iraqis that we are a willing partner in their self-interest, to build a democratic and stable society." This fundamentally means co-option of all voices within the Iraqi domestic political spectrum - and finding a way to give all dissenting opinions an outlet and a stake in the outcome.
Whether this Administration is ideologically capable of giving our troops this mission, I doubt, based on the evidence thus far. I'm starting to honestly question whether the current leadership can bring us to that required victory. The troops will not disappoint us and will do their utmost, but the failure is at the topmost level - which is by far the most damaging to our long-term prospects. Not even our jarheads and grunts can prevail against a failure in leadership and a schizophrenia in vision.
UPDATE: The flip side of the pessimism above about the Bush Administration's capability to successfully lead, is the fact that Iraq is not lost yet. There is a route to victory that involves lots of the less-glorious nation-building scutwork that the pro-war Right is so quick to dismiss in favor of resolute military response. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal makes the point that there is still an open route to success:
However, we all need to understand the risk the U.S. is running by refusing to have a more open, public debate in Iraq about the transitional constitution and government. If the Shiites have the impression that they are once again being cheated of an effective democratic majority, then it is entirely possible that the consensus among Shiites about America's beneficial presence in their country could quickly end. Sadr's argument to his flock--that military force is the best way to ensure a Shiite victory--could start to look very appealing.
Many commentators now think we've descended into another Vietnam. This simply isn't true. The vast majority of Shiites--the overwhelming bulk of their paramilitary forces--are still on our side. (American soldiers would be dying by the hundreds if this were not the case.) Hell is when Ayatollah Sistani calls for a jihad--that is the 1920 parallel. It is still obvious that the clerical establishment in Najaf and the primary Shiite political players in Baghdad are invested in the American-led transition. They all want to see national elections, sooner not later.
Unlike the author, however, I don't believe that crushing the Mehdi Army will allow for that conscensus to form. Rather it will have the opposite effect. As we have seen in the past week...