Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Iraq is not like Vietnam

Matt Yglesias has endorsed the position of Steve Simon's pamphlet "After the Surge: The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq" which advises withdrawal from Iraq on grounds that we have heard before but Simon does phrase them a bit more clearly.

Leaving U.S. forces in Iraq under today’s circumstances means the United States is culpable but not capable—that is, Washington bears substantial responsibility for developments within Iraq without the ability to shape those developments in a positive direction. In consequence, Iraqi support for the U.S. presence has collapsed. Polls indicate that most Iraqis want the United States to pull out. Moreover, the Iraq war has fueled the jihad and apparently been a godsend to jihadi recruiters—and the process of self-recruitment—as indicated by the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the global war on terror. More broadly, the Iraq war has had a very damaging effect on the U.S. reputation in the Arab and wider Islamic world. Authoritative opinion surveys show this as well. The continued presence of U.S. forces is thus a severe setback in the canonical war of ideas, which the Bush administration has correctly assessed as crucial to American interests. [...]

In 2004, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden, said of the U.S. intervention: “America is between two fires. If it stays in Iraq, it will bleed to death; if it leaves, it will lose everything.” His forecast comes disturbingly close to describing current circumstances. It need not, however, be prophecy. More than three years after the intervention began, to be sure, the United States finds itself in an agonizing strategic position. The time has come to acknowledge that the United States must fundamentally recast its commitment to Iraq. It must do so without any illusions that there are unexplored or magic fixes, whether diplomatic or military. Some disasters are irretrievable. Having staked its prestige on the intervention and failed to achieve many of its objectives, the United States will certainly pay a price for military disengagement from Iraq. But if the United States manages its departure from Iraq carefully, it will not have lost everything. Rather, the United States will have preserved the opportunity to recover vital assets that its campaign in Iraq has imperiled: diplomatic initiative, global reputation, and the well-being and political utility of its ground forces. [...]

But raising the prospect of desperate deterioration in Iraq and its environs after an American military disengagement necessarily tends to obscure two things. First, the presence of U.S. forces has not stabilized Iraq thus far. Second, conditions for instability have become structural elements of Iraqi politics. Given these facts, how long should the U.S. keep troops in Iraq, when its military presence only delays an inevitable escalation of intra-Iraqi fighting?

Well said, but I have yet to hear a single advocate for complete withdrawal grapple with the consequences of allowing Iraq to fall into the hands of the forces of Al-Qaeda, or to the influence of its neighbors. One may see shades of the domino theory here and accordingly cry foul, but there is a crucial difference. Vietnam was at the not encircled by powers hoping to divide up the loyalties of its people for various forms of the ideology we are trying to fight. The neighboring countries of Laos and Cmabodia fell to Communist influence so the domino theorists may feel vindicated but at the time we entered, surrounding countries were not trying to make Vietnam a proxy state. The struggled in Vietnam was at it origin, one against colonialism.

Secondly in Vietnam we were not trying to reconcile two sides in a civil war. In Vietnam we were one side in a civil war, and were fighting against a people trying to expel us. The Iraqis may want us to leave but the fighting there is intra-Iraqi, and aimed at establishing hegemony of religious sect.

And thirdly cultural differences in between Vietnam and the Soviet Union would have made a long term alliance between the two untenable. Sino-Soviet relations were always hostile and a people that had been fighting colonial occupation for decades would not have accepted Soviet influence. Nor would they have accepted it from the Chinese with whom there was a centuries old cultural animus. The Iraqi people are not a nation. The territory is the result of European, colonial cartography and the Sunnis will find more to like with Saudi Arabia, the Shiites with Iran, and Kurds with Turkey. Iraq is thus not only already surrounded by various forms of the ideology we are trying to fight but the regional powers who represent it are know to be positively trying to export it.

If we leave Iraq we will leave it to the influence of powers who have international goals and the people will not be so resistant to their influence. The Vietnamese just wanted us, and everyone else, out. The Iraqis are not fighting a war of independence, rather for fear of each other they are fighting one for tribal hegemony.

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