Vietnam to Arizona: The strategy of moral misdirection

Ed Ross Contributor
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A Vietnam veteran, on April 30, the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, I reflected on my two tours of duty there. On May 1, “Immigration-Day,” I watched protesters on television march in opposition to Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration and the failure of the federal government to enact “comprehensive” immigration reform. They reminded me of anti-Vietnam-War protests, and got me thinking about what they have in common.

Protestors, whether they’re anti-war, Tea Party goers, or open-border advocates, are not monolithic. They consist of overlapping groups of the self-interested, political activists, and concerned citizens. They tend, however, to rally behind a principal theme–the one most likely to attract media coverage and win sympathizers.

American opposition to the Vietnam War, according to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, consisted of opposition to the draft (the self interested); moral, legal, and pragmatic arguments against U.S. intervention (political activists); and reaction to the media portrayal of the devastation in Southeast Asia (concerned citizens).

The central theme their leaders rallied them behind, and the one the media played up most, leaned heavily on the secular-moral aspects of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, especially its effects on the people of Southeast Asia and its cost in American lives. In the years that followed the Vietnam War, however, belying their moral concerns, those most active in the anti-war movement inexplicably ignored the deaths of more than 3.5 million people at the hands of Vietnamese and Cambodian Communists. And they treated American Vietnam War veterans with great disrespect.

I don’t blame antiwar protests for the U.S. loss in Vietnam, as some do. Bad strategic decisions and mismanagement of the war occupy that spot. But antiwar protests certainly played a role. Intentionally and unintentionally, their focus on the “immorality” of an “unwinnable” war, playing off the carnage Americans saw on television, obscured America’s real mistakes in Vietnam, and cast its strategic defeat as the result of a morally bankrupt policy.

In doing this they established the template for American political debate for decades to come–one the immigration protesters emulate today. From the Vietnam War onward, liberals in American politics have consistently sought to cast political differences with conservatives in predominantly secular vs. religious moral terms. They seek to occupy the moral high ground as the defender of the victimized by “hypocrites” on the conservative and religious right.

As with the debate over the Vietnam War, those most likely to sympathize with liberals and take to the streets in the debate over border security and illegal immigration include the self interested, political activists, and concerned citizens. U.S. businesses benefit from the cheap illegal labor. Democrat and union activists see millions of illegal immigrants as potential Democrat voters and union members. Concerned Hispanics identify with those who share their ethnic and cultural heritage.

Immigration protest leaders, like their Vietnam War predecessors, also focus on what attracts the media and wins sympathizers. They want to portray illegal immigrants and Hispanics as the victims of right-wing racism and racial profiling. Few things are more morally repugnant to Americans than racism.

Racism and racial profiling certainly exist in America. They are evils to be denounced and guarded against; but they are not the central issues in the debate over border security and illegal immigration in 21st century America.

Unsecure boarders and illegal immigration are threats to all Americans, including Hispanics. They have profound social, economic and national security consequences that, while not difficult to understand, require going beyond sound bites. Americans must deal with them in a strategic, practical, and equitable manner. We cannot allow foreign criminal syndicates, drug dealers, murderers, and terrorists to take advantage of America’s inability to deal forthrightly with border security and illegal immigration.

Whether you agree or disagree with the new Arizona law and whether it is upheld or overturned by the courts, it has nothing to do with racism. It is a federal crime to enter the United States illegally. Legal immigrants to the United States are required by federal law to have their “green card” with them at all times and to present it on request to lawful authority. It is not racist for the Government of Arizona, in its self defense, to do what the federal government too often fails to do.

There are legitimate interests on all sides of the border security/illegal immigration issue. Americans should debate them on their relative merits without attempting to obscure their opponent’s objections on phony moral grounds. It’s as wrong to shout racist in the political forum when racism is not prevalent as it is to cry fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

Unfortunately, liberal activists have gotten away with using the protest of righteous indignation far too long, and they’re not about to change from within any time soon. Perhaps that’s why they feel so threatened by the Tea Party movement. At last, conservative Americans have begun to challenge them for the “moral high ground” on their own terms.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.