May 23, 2013
The Road Out of Iraq Begins in Vietnam
Posted on Dec 24, 2008
By Scott Ritter
This article is the second part of a four-part series that explores policy options for President-elect Barack Obama regarding Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Russia. The first article, “With Iran, Obama Needs More Carrot, Less Stick,” ran Nov. 13.
It has often been said that Iraq is not Vietnam and that any effort to compare the two wars is misguided and intellectually dishonest. While I would be the first to concur, one can never forget Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is an extension of politics, by other means.” As such, every war represents a model for all conflict, insofar as it represents not simply force-on-force military engagement, but, more important, military-political interaction which incorporates the domestic dynamic of the involved nations. Vietnam the war was not simply lost on the field of battle in Southeast Asia, just as Iraq the war was not lost in the deserts of the Middle East. The American military, in both conflicts, was never defeated in a major engagement. In fact, tactically and operationally speaking, the American military dominated the battlefield in both conflicts, and yet America the nation emerged the loser in each.
The United States today has come to grips with the reality that President George W. Bush’s ill-conceived military misadventure in Mesopotamia has failed, and it is time to bring our troops home. A similar understanding was had in 1968, when the majority of Americans recognized that President Lyndon Johnson’s war of escalation represented little more than death by a thousand cuts. It took President Richard Nixon five years to disengage America from Vietnam, after he had attempted his own escalation. Based on the recently consummated status of forces agreement governing the American military presence in Iraq, the U.S. is militarily committed to Baghdad through 2011. How President-elect Barack Obama chooses to frame the next three years is critical in terms of America’s ability to truly disengage from Iraq.
Should Obama fall victim to those who postulate the need to obtain “victory” in order to preserve American “honor,” it is likely that the nightmare in Iraq will continue well past the 2011 deadline, since those goals will never be met. However, if the new president takes a page from history and proceeds with Iraq as Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s leading Vietnam policy adviser, did with Vietnam, agreeing to “an historical process or a political process in which the real forces in Vietnam will assert themselves, whatever these forces are,” then there may be hope. Kissinger was not willing to have America fall on its sword when it came to defending the corrupt government of President Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon. Nor should Obama commit America to defend to the death the nonviable government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. What is required is a “decent interval” in which America provides Iraq with a window of opportunity for the “real forces in Iraq” to assert themselves, “whatever these forces are.”
The “surge” of American military forces into Iraq that occurred in 2007-2008 has run its course. However fleeting the stability engendered by this action proves to be, the fact is, from an American domestic political imperative, one can point to a statistical improvement in terms of fewer American and Iraqi casualties. A political case can be made that a condition has been created which will allow for gradual “Iraqification,” similar to Nixon’s “Vietnamization” efforts in the 1970s, in which the government in Baghdad assumes a greater responsibility for its own security. U.S. military planners must not fall victim to the fantasy of a perfect solution for Iraq, since the reality is that whatever solution emerges will have little to do with American military efforts and everything to do with the political realities of Iraq after the end of American occupation. All that is needed is a “decent interval” in which the perception of an American-induced stability catches hold among the American people, and by extension, American politicians.
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