Friday, December 14, 2007

Sooner or Later

Steven Simon (who has put forth one of the smartest plans for withdrawal from Iraq (warning - pdf)) takes on the propagandistic claim that the Vietnam war was lost at home - a variation of the stabbed in the back meme that is being carefully cultivated, again, for use against the Left post-withdrawal from Iraq. According to this right-wing historical revisionism, after roughly a decade of military involvement in Vietnam, we were finally on the verge of "winning." But just as our mission was nearing accomplishment, the Left pulled the rug out from under our forces, in effect snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Not only does Simon do a thorough job of debunking this dolchstoss canard, but he puts forth an intriguing counter-thesis: the real lesson to take away from the Vietnam war is not that we left too soon but, rather, that we left too late. By staying around past the point at which our efficacy expired, argues Simon, we reinforced bad behavior on the part of our putative allies, and ensured that once we finally did leave, we would be in a severely weakened position such that maintaining support, even from a distance, was rendered impossible for political and logistical reasons.

Some brief excerpts from a more detailed argument (free registration required):

Furthermore, it became obvious that in Vietnam–as in virtually all counterinsurgency situations–an agreement changing the political conditions that spawned the insurgency was indispensable to a sustainable peace on terms acceptable to Washington and Saigon. Unless that happened, military gains, no matter how audacious, could not be sustained. Yet throughout the U.S. involvement, the South Vietnamese government remained decadent, stagnant, and incorrigible. As historian George Herring has noted, "The United States found to its chagrin that as its commitment increased, its leverage diminished." While there were undeniable counterinsurgency successes in the early 1970s, Saigon was not up to consolidating them by winning the confidence of its citizenry.

Meanwhile, the United States lost public support for the war–not because the American people were pampered, spineless, and lacked tolerance for casualties, but because they were convinced that the American leaders had conducted the war so incompetently and dishonestly for so long that victory could no longer be retrieved. If this sounds familiar, it should: Americans today have essentially the same attitude toward the Iraq War. [emphasis added]

Those bolded sections above are reminiscent of the premature exuberance generated by the military successes stemming from the Surge and the, largely unrelated, Anbar Awakening strategy. Without the far more impactful political reconciliation, those military victories - while laudable - will prove illusory. Yet, as we experienced in Vietnam, our increased level of military commitment has emboldened Iraqi leaders to forego compromise, and declare political reconciliation a dead letter.

Simon lays out the crux of the argument regarding the timing of withdrawal:

The United States government, however, morbidly delayed its exit from Vietnam on the pretext of a fruitless "Vietnamization" process begun under the first Nixon Administration. The period was marked by a fatally incoherent combination of factors: the slow and indecisive withdrawal of American troops, an unmotivated South Vietnamese military (despite an accelerated U.S.-sponsored buildup), and the aggravation of local and regional populations by the increasingly brutal application of U.S. military power. Rather than seriously attempting to induce the South Vietnamese to develop institutions sufficient to sustain the state, the United States kept pressing for a military solution, expanding the war to Cambodia and stepping up the air campaign against the North. Despite effective rural development programs that diminished the insurgency, in 1972 the United States was basically left with what it had at the start: a decadent government in Saigon. In fact, things were worse. Ten years on, the problem was compounded by instability fomented by the war. In particular, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia had hardened the communist Khmer Rouge’s resistance against pro-U.S. Cambodian leader Lon Nol and lent momentum to Pol Pot’s genocidal designs.

Having spent its domestic political capital on Cambodia, the Nixon Administration had little choice in 1972 but to eke out the Paris Peace Accords, under which North Vietnam would observe a cease-fire following a U.S. military withdrawal. But by then Nixon, devoid of popular American support for further engagement in Vietnam, had to negotiate with Hanoi from weakness. The Paris accords required a wholesale American pullout, but they did not require the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to withdraw from South Vietnam. Its patience exhausted, Congress would not authorize funds to equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) with the hardware it would have needed to repel a major NVA offensive. The U.S. military guarantee to South Vietnam came to little more than Nixon’s secret 1972 pledge to President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would retaliate militarily if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire–a pledge rendered empty by the 1973 congressional ban on all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia and its meager 1974 appropriation ($700 million) for South Vietnam. By the end of 1973, Watergate had so damaged Nixon’s standing with Congress that he was powerless to revive any congressional support for U.S. activities in Vietnam. When the decisive offensive came in 1975, the Ford Administration could muster only toothless diplomatic protests. North Vietnamese troops soon overran Saigon, and the South surrendered unconditionally to the North in April 1975 as American helicopters staged an unforgettably shambolic and tragic evacuation.

Even leaving aside historical differences between the conflicts, the Iraq-Vietnam analogy is largely a straw man. Most of those who oppose a continued major U.S. military presence in Iraq have not, thus far, proposed a 1975 vintage withdrawal that would leave the Iraqi government without recourse to U.S. diplomatic or military support to secure its position in the regional political environment or military assistance to prevent state implosion. Indeed, all serious proposals call for robust diplomacy to temper destabilizing external influences and a U.S. quick-reaction force deployed in the region to deter and contain any security crisis in Iraq. That could change, of course. As long as large numbers of U.S. troops remain deployed in Iraq, it is not at all difficult to foresee circumstances on the ground–say, a suicide attack on the order of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut–that would push opposition to U.S. involvement past the tipping point for measured and prudent compromise. In that event, only wholesale withdrawal, with little consideration for residual help to Baghdad, might satisfy a majority of Americans and their elected representatives. If that happened, American power and influence in the region would dwindle precipitously.

The interests of both Iraq and the United States would be better served by avoiding the type of withdrawal that would be tantamount to abandonment. But as Simon points out, if the US wants to maintain the ability to interdict in Iraq in order to avoid the types of catastrophic outcomes that many fear could result from withdrawal, then we must withdraw while there is still an ample supply of political will, economic resources and military capacity to allow us to help manage the process from afar.

To save Iraq, we must let it go.

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