Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The High Stakes in Iraq

As the widely agreed upon Hour of Decision approaches on the Iraq question for American political leaders, prereport assessments of the stakes involved in that decision are proliferating. President Bush, in an August 22 speech to the VFW, drew parallels between our premature withdrawal from Vietnam and proposals to withdraw sooner rather than later from Iraq.
Then as now, people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end. ...The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.
Setting aside the debate surrounding our entry into that war, he states firmly, "one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'" He turns to bin Laden himself for a summary of the stakes involved: "the war [in Iraq] is for you or us to win. If we win it, it means your disgrace and defeat forever." In other words, withdrawal does not mean putting thew whole sorry mess behind us and returning to peace. Rather, it means great loss of life and of American credibility, and emboldening very dangerous (state and non-state) enemies.

In Monday's Wall Street Journal, Josef Joffe added his academic weight to the President's argument ("If Iraq Falls," August 27, 2007). He argues that, "unlike yesterday's Vietnam, the Greater Middle East (including Turkey) is the central strategic arena of the 21st century, as Europe was in the 20th. ...So let's take a moment to think about what would happen once that last Blackhawk took off from Baghdad International. Here is a short list."

  • "Iran advances to No. 1, completing its nuclear-arms program undeterred and unhindered. America's cowed Sunni allies -- Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, the oil-rich "Gulfies" -- are drawn into the Khomeinist orbit."

  • "...[E]mboldened jihadi forces shift to Afghanistan and turn it again into a bastion of Terror International."

  • "Syria reclaims Lebanon..."

  • "Russia, extruded from the Middle East by adroit Kissingerian diplomacy in the 1970s, rebuilds its anti-Western alliances. ...This ruthlessly revisionist power wants revenge for its post-Gorbachev humiliation, not responsibility."

  • China establishes itself as the dominant power in the Western Pacific region.
Europe is irrelevant as a world power in this respect, but America, even discredited, would not be so. "Its enemies from al Qaeda to Iran -- and its rivals from Russia to China -- can disrupt and defy, but they cannot build and lead. For all the damage to Washington's reputation, nothing of great import can be achieved without, let alone against, the U.S."

He sees all three Democratic presidential front runners peering past the decision they have been advocating to the dreadful and global consequences of a simple pull-out. As the Hour of Decision approaches as well as election day 2008, they seem to be sobering up. In sum: "The U.S. as 'Gulliver Unbound' may have stumbled during its 'unipolar' moment. But as giant with feet of clay, it will do worse: and so will the rest of the world."

The same day, Mark Steyn reflected on this subject in the New York Sun ("Withdrawl Recalled"). Taking his cue from the President's citation of a naive judgment in the New York Times in 1975, Steyn takes today's NYT to task for writing that, "In urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, Mr. Bush is challenging the historical memory that the pullout from Vietnam had few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies." He details a few of those "negative repercussions."

South Vietnam was promptly overrun by the communist north.

The former Cambodian Prime Minister, Sirik Matak, refused an American offer of asylum, choosing instead to remain with his people. "A month later [he] was killed by the Khmer Rouge, along with the best part of two million other people." He told the American ambassador, "I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty … I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans."

He cites also the revolution in Granada, Argentina's seizure of the Falkland Islands, and Russian adventurism in Africa through their Cuban proxies as consequences of the loss of Western credibility in general. And then, of course, there is Iran.

And, as Iran reminds us, the enduring legacy of the retreat from Vietnam was the emboldening of other enemies. The forces loosed in the Middle East bedevil to this day, in Iran, and in Lebanon, which Syria invaded shortly after the fall of Saigon and after its dictator had sneeringly told Henry Kissinger, "You've betrayed Vietnam. Someday you're going to sell out Taiwan. And we're going to be around when you get tired of Israel."

President Assad understood something that too many Americans didn't. Then as now, the anti-war debate is conducted as if it's only about the place you're fighting in: Vietnam is a quagmire, Iraq is a quagmire, so get out of the quagmire. Wrong. The "Vietnam war" was about Vietnam if you had the misfortune to live in Saigon. But if you lived in Damascus and Moscow and Havana, the Vietnam war was about America: American credibility, American purpose, American will.
Osama bin Laden has been studying these lessons. Vietnam. Lebanon. Somalia. America is "a soft plump ersatz-superpower that coils up in the fetal position if you prick its toe."

The September decision on Iraq is not about budgets, casualties and quagmires. The fundamental issue is American credibility, international stability and our security against domestic terrorist attacks.

You must also read Bernard Lewis's eye-opening review of the consequences in international affairs during the Cold War for the perception, particularly in the Middle East, that America is briefly threatening and easily bullied.

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward...These different responses evoked different treatment. While American policies, institutions and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune.

It is an opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal. "Was Osama Right? Islamists always believed the U.S. was weak. Recent political trends won't change their view." Read it all.

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