The new plain-spoken commander of the U.S. military in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, has finally uttered the words that the Bush administration’s civilian leadership has steadfastly avoided. Admitting what has been obvious for weeks now, General Abizaid said that the United States is in “a classical guerilla-type campaign” in Iraq.

Such comments cannot make Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, very happy. But after Vietnam, where the politicians, to some degree, let the U.S. military hang out to dry for losing the war, the new commander may be saying such things out of self-preservation. Things are going downhill in Iraq and the general may want to have the record show that he inherited a bad situation, rather being unfairly blamed later by his civilian superiors for letting things spin out of control. Abizaid may have been unnerved by seeing CIA Director George Tenet become a scapegoat for the president’s deceptive reference in his State of the Union to Iraq’s supposed quest for uranium in Niger. After all, George Tenet and the CIA were the ones that objected to the reference in an earlier presidential speech. Abizaid has probably not been impressed with President Bush’s loyalty to subordinates. In addition, this intelligence scandal, combined with the Vietnam calamity, probably has shown the general that deceptions will ultimately be uncovered.

And the parallels to the Vietnam conflict are not a stretch. U.S. involvement in both conflicts came about because of presidential deceptions. Many historians now believe that Lyndon Johnson exaggerated or even invented the violent incidents between U.S. and North Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, which triggered U.S. escalation in Vietnam. It is now evident that George W. Bush also deceived the American people by exaggerating the threat to the United States posed by Iraq.

But the similarities don’t end there. In any guerilla war, support of the indigenous population is very important to achieving victory. The United States, with its use of excessive firepower and its support for a corrupt South Vietnamese government, never won over the people in South Vietnam. And despite the television media’s focus on Iraqi citizens that were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, the bulk of Iraqis were ambivalent about U.S. occupation. After two wars against the United States in 12 years and grinding U.S.-led multilateral economic sanctions for more than a decade, even the Shiites were lukewarm to U.S. forces. The Sunnis are already downright hostile. The general lawlessness, high unemployment, sporadic electric power, and shortages of clean water and other services could make more and more members of these two factions actively hostile to U.S. occupation forces. Even the Kurds, currently the group most friendly toward the United States, have ruled themselves for more than a decade. If the United States does not allow them autonomy or a separate state, they may also turn nasty. The American revolution demonstrated that people are most likely to fight fiercely when autonomy and freedom are taken from them.

Ominously, Abizaid said that new troops may be needed to contain the mounting mayhem. This reality is reminiscent of the escalation phenomenon in Vietnam. As the U.S. developed an increasing stake in the outcome in that country, U.S. prestige and “credibility” were perceived to be on the line. Existing forces were insufficient to pacify the country, so more were sent. Because the United States then had an even bigger stake in the outcome and even more prestige on the line, cutting its losses and getting out was even more difficult. But if the United States had cut its losses and withdrawn its forces earlier, almost a decade of national trauma could have been avoided.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration, after invading Iraq and destroying the government and the social fabric, is faced with the “you broke it, you bought it” problem. The administration should have known it would be faced with a greater task and more risk in totally reconstructing and remaking an entire society than it faced in achieving a conventional military victory over a dilapidated and antiquated Iraqi military. But the administration was like a dog chasing a fire engine; it didn’t know what to do with the prey after catching it.

This guerilla war in Iraq could bring down the Bush presidency. In this case, the old Washington adage rings true: the handling of a foreign policy crisis can’t get you reelected, but it can get you unelected—just as Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, and the president’s own father found out.

But the Bush administration can still avoid another Vietnam. The administration can fess up to its mistakes, cut its losses, withdraw its forces and turn the post-war reconstruction over to a coalition of the willing or the United Nations. As was the case in Vietnam, the administration in power may be unable to face the music. But the music can only get louder.