||KANSAS CITY, United States (AFP) - US President George W. Bush on Wednesday warned that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would trigger a bloodbath like the one in Southeast Asia after the US defeat and retreat from Vietnam.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush said in an effort to turn on its head the analogy by critics who liken the Iraq war to the Vietnam quagmire.
"Whatever your position is on that debate, one 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,' 'reeducation camps,' and 'killing fields,'" he added.
Bush, speaking to US veterans of 20th century conflicts in Asia, also likened nation-building and military operations in Iraq to democracy-fostering efforts in Japan and the decision to defend South Korea, respectively.
"Even the most optimistic among you probably would not have foreseen that the Japanese would transform themselves into one of America's strongest and most steadfast allies, or that the South Koreans would recover from enemy invasion to raise up one of the world's most powerful economies," he said.
The US president, pleading for patience with his unpopular war-fighting strategy, said those efforts held an important lesson and amounted to a valuable precedent at a time when most Americans oppose his approach.
"A free Iraq is not going to transform the Middle East overnight, but a free Iraq will be a massive defeat for Al-Qaeda. It will be an example that provides hope for millions throughout the Middle East. It'll be a friend of the United States. And it's going to be an important ally" against terrorism, he said.
Less than a month ahead of a key US report on progress in the Iraq war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 US military personnel, Bush sought in his address to answer critics calling for a US withdrawal.
But he glossed over key differences, such as the fact that Japan, unlike Iraq, was not in the throes of sectarian violence that some have called civil war when Washington tried to plant democracy in the ruins of empire there.
Bush also sought to dispel the impression, which he appeared to fuel on Tuesday, that Washington's support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sharply decreased over the past few months.
"Prime Minister Maliki's a good guy, good man, with a difficult job, and I support him," said Bush, who was seeking to dispel any sense that Washington has been distancing itself from the beleaguered government in Baghdad.
"Many are frustrated by the pace of progress in Baghdad, and I can understand this," he said. "A free Iraq's not going to be perfect. A free Iraq will not make decisions as quickly as the country did under the dictatorship."
But "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," he said.
That appeared to be a slap at two senior lawmakers who, after a two-day trip to Baghdad, urged Iraqis to consider replacing Maliki if he failed to make progress on passing laws seen as key to forging national unity.
Democrats quickly fired back, with Bush's 2004 rival for the White House, Senator John Kerry, saying it was "not surprising that he (Bush) would oversimplify the differences and overlook the tragic similarities."
"As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq based on official deception. As in Vietnam, more American soldiers are being sent to fight and die in a civil war we cant stop and an insurgency we cant bomb into submission," he said.
"If the president wants to heed the lessons of Vietnam, he should change course and change course now," said Kerry.
Bush also drew broad parallels between the global war on terrorism and conflicts in Asia, likening Japan's Pearl Harbor strike to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
"The ideals and interests that led America to help the Japanese turn defeat into democracy are the same that lead us to remain engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq," he argued.
The US president said he wanted to "open today's speech with a story that begins on a sunny morning, when thousands of Americans were murdered in a surprise attack and our nation was propelled into a conflict that would take us to every corner of the globe.
"The enemy that attacked us despises and harbors resentment at the slights he believes American and Western nations have inflicted on his people. He fights to establish his rule over an entire region.
"And over time, he turns to a strategy of suicide attacks, destined to create so much carnage that the American people will tire of the violence and give up the fight.
"If the story sounds familiar, it is. Except for one thing: The enemy I just described is not Al-Qaeda and the attack is not 9/11, and the empire is not the radical caliphate envisioned by Osama bin Laden.
"Instead, what I've described is the war machine of imperial Japan in the 1940s, its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and its attempt to impose its empire throughout East Asia," the US leader said.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, many critics opposed America's decision to help rebuild it as a democratic country, Bush said.
Experts said then that both the imperial family, Japanese culture and the Shinto religion were impediments to democracy, he said.
Criticism of US involvement in the Middle East today echoed the arguments made about Asia then, he said.
"Today, in defiance of the critics and the doubters and the skeptics, Japan retains its religions and cultural traditions and stands as one of the world's greatest free societies.
"You know, the experts sometimes get it wrong."
Bush acknowledged that there were differences between the wars the United States has fought in Asia and today's "war on terror" against Islamic militants, but insisted they were all "ideological struggles."
"The militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision for the proper ordering of humanity," he said.
"They killed Americans because we stood in the way of their attempt to force their ideology on others. Today, the names and places have changed but the fundamental character of the struggle has not changed."
Copyright © AFP 2007