Opening a new campaign to sustain his “surge” strategy in Iraq, President George W Bush on Wednesday compared Washington’s ongoing struggle there to both World War II and the Vietnam War where, he said, Washington’s withdrawal led to disaster for “millions of innocent citizens.” Speaking to the perennially hawkish Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Convention in Missouri, Bush also reiterated strong support for Iraq’s increasingly besieged prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose reluctance to implement US plans for national reconciliation has spurred growing disillusionment — and even calls for his ouster — by influential lawmakers in Washington.

“Prime Minister Maliki’s a good guy, good man with a difficult job, and I support him,” Bush declared. “And it’s not up to the politicians in Washington, DC, to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people, who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.” Bush’s remarks, the first in a series of appearances and other administration initiatives designed to rally support for maintaining as many as 170,000 US troops in Iraq well into 2008 in advance of a critical report to Congress due in mid-September, suggested to supporters and critics alike that the president remains as determined as ever to hold out against pressure, even from his own party, to begin withdrawing troops in the coming months.

“The president is not going to change; he’s going to insist on staying the course,” said ret Gen John Johns, a counter-insurgency specialist. “What is required is that the Republican leadership in Congress force the president (to change course). I do not see that in the works today, and I don’t understand why.” Bush’s speech, which followed the overnight crash of a US Blackhawk helicopter in which 14 US soldiers were killed — the worst one-day US death toll in more than a year — came amid growing speculation about both the fate of al-Maliki’s government and the report by Washington’s ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and its military commander there, Gen David Petraeus, which Congress may receive as early as Sept 11.

The report, which is supposed to be an assessment of the six-month-old surge strategy, is likely to echo what has become a growing consensus here over the past several weeks — that, while the addition of some 30,000 US troops and the adoption of more-aggressive counter-insurgency tactics have succeeded in reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad, virtually no comparable progress has been made on the political front. Not only has the Iraqi parliament failed to approve legislation on the distribution of oil revenues, the eligibility of former Ba’ath party officials to return to government, or on the holding of elections that would give Sunnis a greater voice in provincial and local councils, but the largest Sunni bloc aligned with the government walked out earlier this month.

Crocker himself called progress toward national reconciliation “extremely disappointing” on Tuesday, while even Bush appeared to be hedging his support for al-Maliki during a visit to Canada on Tuesday, calling on the government “to do more through its parliament to help heal the wounds of ...having lived years under a tyrant.” Boasting of recent military successes, Bush said US troops were asking: “Whether elected leaders in Washington pulled the rug out from under them just as they’re gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq. Here’s my answer: We’ll support our troops; we’ll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed.” Comparing Washington’s current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with the “ideological struggles” of World War II and “the communists in Korea and Vietnam”, Bush argued that the subsequent transitions of Japan and South Korea into democratic states should offer hope for similar results in the Middle East.

As for the Vietnam War, Bush implied that Washington’s withdrawal constituted a moral abdication to the people of Indochina. “...(O)ne unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields’.”

But critics argued that Bush misunderstood the historical precedents he cited. “Bush is cherry-picking history to support his case,” said Johns, who was a senior military planner during the Vietnam War. “What I learned in Vietnam is that US forces could not conduct a counter-insurgency operation. The longer we stay there, the worse it’s going to get.” As for Bush’s references to the violence, especially in Cambodia, that followed its withdrawal from Indochina, Simon noted that much of it happened “because the US left too late, not too early. It was the expansion of the war (into Cambodia) that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay the worse it gets.” — IPS