Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not stand for reelection, due largely to the burdens of the Vietnam War. Like the war in Iraq today, Vietnam was a conflict whose strategic importance came not from the inherent stakes of the dispute, but rather from the perception that a premature withdrawal would signal weakness, embolden our enemies, and cause our friends to lose hope.
While Iraq is a very different conflict from Vietnam on the ground, we can learn something about the logic of commitment and abandonment from that previous conflict. By 1968 the United States had suffered more than 25,000 combat deaths and 100,000 casualties in Vietnam, demonstrating clearly our resolve to prevail. Yet our enemies were not cowed, our friends were not encouraged and, in the end, we derived little benefit from being so resolute. The Soviets saw us as distracted and overcommitted. In aiding their Vietnamese colleagues, they tied down a large percentage of American military power and divided the country with a minimal commitment of resources. Worse, our allies were anxious and fearful, perceiving us as irrational and unresponsive.
As Henry Kissinger discussed in the opening chapters of White House Years, when the Nixon Administration came into office, it was not able to build on the strength of our position conferred by our noble commitment in Vietnam. Rather, it was in a position of having to rebuild ties to our European allies and negotiate with the Soviets from a position of weakness earned through our myopic fixation on Southeast Asia.
Demonstrating strength is tremendously important in international politics. But the perception of strength comes not from the obsessive pursuit of the quixotic. It comes from a clear focus on identifiable and consistent national security interests.
Under President Bush, American foreign policy has veered between empty idealism and gang code loyalty. Spreading democracy is a wonderful aspiration. It is not a sound basis for specific foreign policy commitments. The goal is too long-term and too inchoate. Staying the course is only meaningful in the context of an identifiable goal rather than a vague concept like “stability” or “victory.” Loyalty to friends is an admirable attribute, but not when it means supporting dictators like Pervez Musharraf who allow our enemies sanctuary in their countries, or petty warlords like Nouri al-Maliki who seek to use American power to settle local feuds. Friendship is a two-way street.
Our real friends will respect us for being smart and responsible. Our enemies will fear us for being strong willed, clear-eyed, and decisive. One form of decisiveness is the ability to cut loose unnecessary commitments. Pulling out of Iraq now would be a demonstration of clear-minded conviction.
At this point, Iraq has a democratically elected, albeit flawed, government and the core of a functional military. Al Qaeda is on the run. There is likely to be no better time than now to demonstrate our strength of mind by ending our presence there and refocusing our energies on the growing jihadist networks in such places as South Asia and North Africa.
Could Iraq turn into a sanctuary for jihadists? Sure, but they already have a safe haven in Pakistan and face better prospects in such places as East Africa. Could Iraq collapse into outright civil war and genocide? Possibly, but genocide is already occurring in Darfur. There are no guarantees about the future of Iraq, but realistically it is not the most likely home for al Qaeda nor is it the most likely venue for a large scale humanitarian disaster beyond that which has already occurred.
On the other hand, remaining in Iraq demonstrates weakness. Staying the course indefinitely is a policy driven by fear – mostly fear of what others will say about us. There will come a time in the next few years when we will have to weigh the possibility of engaging in regime change elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, because of Iraq, we will be reticent to even consider it. Our involvement in Iraq tempts our adversaries to take advantage of us being tied down – as Iran is demonstrating – and it simultaneously makes us less likely to act forcefully against others in the future.
Just as in the case of Vietnam, it is irrational commitment rather than thoughtful reassessment that is more likely to embolden our enemies.