The Bush administration has shifted noticeably from defending the Iraq war to emphasizing the suspected downsides of withdrawal. President Bush continually asserts that the consequences of leaving Iraq would be “grievous and far-reaching,” and result in a “nightmare scenario.” The president has focused on two negative consequences: a loss of U.S. credibility, and the prospect that withdrawal would precipitate a reverse domino effect, propping up the authoritarian governments that Bush’s Iraq policy was intended to undermine. These claims echo the arguments of Lyndon Johnson, who argued against cutting our losses in Vietnam.
The issue of credibility was so central to America’s Vietnam policy that tens of thousands of Americans died in the pursuit not of victory, but of saving face. They died because American leaders believed then — as the Bush administration apparently believes now — that defeat would have uncontrollable consequences. But the wiser voices inside the Johnson administration were arguing as early as the mid-1960s that the costs of defeat were manageable.
On Sept. 11, 1967, the intelligence community issued a secret memo titled “Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam.” In it, the authors considered the many dire predictions that had been made about the dangers if the United States were to withdraw from Vietnam. The memo concluded that the perils of accepting an unfavorable outcome would be “probably more limited and controllable than most previous argument has indicated.”
Further, the memo argued, “it should not be beyond the capacity of our leadership and diplomacy to negotiate this passage.”
When the memo was written, fewer than 20,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. By the time the Nixon administration finished whispering about a “decent interval,” Vietnam had claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans.
The issue of credibility is once again at the center of the debate over ending a disastrous American military enterprise. The Bush administration argues that U.S. allies would broadly question America’s commitments, concluding that when the going gets tough, America bails out.
This argument is partially true, as it was in Vietnam. Al-Qaeda will indeed attempt to link our withdrawal to a larger narrative that includes President Reagan’s retreat from Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and our departure from Somalia after the Black Hawk Down incident. But unless our national leadership allowed our failure in Iraq to call into question other commitments, this damage certainly could be mitigated.
Any administration extricating U.S. troops from Iraq would have to send the message that the U.S. military would now refocus its full attention on al-Qaeda. As for other commitments, why would we allow anyone to conclude that our failure in Iraq had any bearing on them? In withdrawing, the U.S. should answer questions of credibility loudly and clearly. Further, demonstrating that we recognize the error of our ways would indicate a seriousness of purpose and a national magnanimity that has been lacking throughout the Bush years.
The other protest from war supporters is that withdrawal would sound a death knell for the prospect of liberal democratic reform in the Middle East — a reversed version of the domino theory. But that objection implies that liberal democracy could sweep across the Islamic world if U.S. forces are kept in Iraq. In every location elections have been held in the Muslim world since the Iraq war — whether Egypt, the Palestinian territories, or Bahrain — something close to the worst possible result has emerged.
Elections predating significant social change have done little to advance either America’s interests or the cause of liberalism itself. Similarly, the naive assertion peddled by neoconservatives that liberal democratic change was a workable solution to America’s terrorism problem has been a blight on U.S. grand strategy. Reform in the Islamic world cannot be precipitated — or even hastened in a meaningful way — by pressure from America.
All this said, withdrawing from Iraq will indeed represent a defeat for the United States. It should be taken as a cautionary tale about the perils of nation building and the inadvisability of foreign-policy adventurism in general. But in the end, we face the same question as we did in Vietnam: Can the United States end the war and emerge with its fundamental global position unchanged? The 1967 memo offered the almost heretical view that “it seems unlikely that in the end an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam would greatly alter the present pattern of [power] relationships.”
Four years in, we should at least consider whether the same is true of Iraq.