Thursday, June 7, 2007

Defeat in Iraq

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by William Shawcross and Peter Rodman entitled “Defeat’s Killing Fields” examines the prospect of defeat in Iraq in light of America’s historical experience in Vietnam. The fact that these two authors evidently sparred over the conflict in Indochina back when it was raging gives the piece some weight, and I commend the two writers for attempting to inject some historical perspective into the Iraq debate – a place where it is urgently needed yet often sorely lacking – but I take issue with some of their conclusions.

They are right to point out that the rosy view taken by some of the US defeat in Southeast Asia – the notion that in retrospect the loss of the war really wasn’t all that consequential – ignores important bits of history. The American pullback certainly did clear the way for some of the horrific abuses of the Cambodian and Vietnamese Communist regimes, from Pol Pot’s killing fields to Vietnam’s reeducation camps. It is also true that the discrediting of America’s interventionist resolve provided some encouragement for renewed expansionist tendencies on the part of the Soviets.

That said, the authors also make some dubious arguments, particularly when they advance the notion that, had the U.S. not intervened in Vietnam and exhausted the will and resources of Communist expansionism in Asia, the worst predictions of the domino theory would have come to pass. With all respect to those with more experience and education than I, this notion simply flies in the face of history. The most critical strategic error made by the planners of the Vietnam War was to view the Communist world as a monolithic block that would continue rolling forward absent decisive intervention. Communism, which often as not served as an ideological vehicle through which anti-colonial sentiments found their fullest expression, wasn’t what needed to be contained. Rather, it was Soviet expansion that posed a serious threat to U.S. interests, and that could have been managed with a much lighter hand, as America was able to do successfully in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

This history – both what Shawcross and Rodman get right and what they get wrong – does have some bearing on the situation in Iraq. First, the authors are exactly right when they say that defeat in Iraq will have serious negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy in the coming years:

…anyone who thinks an American defeat in Iraq will bring a merciful end to this conflict is deluded. Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamist extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate.

They cite a full-fledged and grizzly civil war, a massive refugee crisis, an increase in attacks by emboldened champions of radical Islam, and an empowered Iran as the principal and virtually certain consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq. They note antecedents for all of these problems in the American endgame in Southeast Asia, and I can’t say that the evidence, historical or modern, leads me to serious disagreement. Indeed, I am trying to steel my psyche for the horrific news I fully intend to hear out of Mesopotamia in the coming years.

I have some major qualms with the authors’ argument, however. First, and most relevant, they don’t propose what an American alternative ought to be. Looking at the current situation in Iraq, where even America’s “surged” forces cannot control more than one third of the Iraqi capital, the notion that America is capable of bringing the conflict to a successful military conclusion seems absurd. Indeed, absent drastic measures like the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Americans through conscription, I don’t see how the U.S. military can effectively continue to fight this war for much longer, never mind win it. The same was true in Vietnam. The American defeat was serious and carried negative consequences, but was a full-fledged victory ever really feasible there? Few now think so.

America’s task as it currently stands is not to choose between victory and defeat, but rather between setback and catastrophe. Simply picking up and leaving with no thought to the probable aftermath will almost certainly lead to all the negative consequences that the authors mention, and likely quite a few that they don’t. Managing the U.S. withdrawal in such a way that leaves the framework for an eventual Iraqi peace (something along the lines of the Dayton accords), while at the same time engaging in a serious “carrot and stick” policy with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and putting real pressure on Israel to allow for the reopening of a genuine peace process in the Levant has the potential to stabilize the region and allow the United States to regroup and reassess its strategic priorities. This scenario would still be risky, messy and bloody, but it might avert the kind of regional implosion that could occur were the American army to simply retreat.

The real question, to my mind, is whether or not that course of action will still be possible in January of 2009 when there is leadership change in Washington, because until that time comes, this is all just talk.

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