Promises To Keep
More than thirty years after the fact, the Vietnam War still haunts the American psyche. Increasingly we hear the word "quagmire" in relation to the conflict in Iraq, as well as the opposing voices of those who reference "bugging out" or "cutting and running" or even "the last helicopter to leave."
The overwhelming victory of our forces during the first Gulf War was supposed to have put the ghost of Vietnam finally to rest. America, by most accounts, had finally purged herself of that demon. Our military was strong, our national self-assurance and will were reinvigorated and refocused.
But even then we held back at the final moment, not wanting to get dragged into a conflict we could not easily exit. In fact it was mainly Colin Powell's insistence on having and adhering to an "exit strategy" that prevented the final push to Baghdad.
Instead, we pulled back at the critical moment and asked the Kurds and Shiites to rise up against Saddam--the implicit message being we would support them. But rather than support them we stood by and watched as Saddam regrouped his forces and then went on the offensive, slaughtering those who had taken up the fight in our place.
We blinked not once, but twice in this instance. And then turned away. Rather than showing strength we revealed our timidity once again, a record that extends back to Somalia and the ignominious pull-out after the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon. Worse yet, it recalled the broken promise to S. Vietnam, and reinforced the idea in the minds of those who would do us harm that the United States is a paper tiger--scary to look at, perhaps, but easily cowed and fundamentally harmless. Or to paraphrase using a slightly different metaphor: America is a weak horse.
A rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a similar early result in Iraq the second time around seemed to once again dispell the idea that an enemy could trifle with us with impunity, a notion reinforced by the eagerness with which Qhadaffi and Assad sought to cooperate with rather than continue to oppose us. Unfortunately, our prolonged and difficult stay in Iraq has resurrected the ghost of Vietnam. We are once again seen as timid, irresolute, unsure. And the more it appears we may again "cut and run" the more emboldened our enemies become.
The fact is, there can be no cutting and running this time. In Vietnam we were lucky to be fighting an enemy that had no intention of following us home. That is most obviously not the case this time. Al Qaeda has already announced its intention to blow up the White House in the wake of an election it sees, rightly or wrongly, as a mandate for American defeat.
One of the more delusional suggestions currently making the rounds posits that our leaving Iraq will actually constitute a victory, inasmuch as the Shiites and Sunnis will consume each other and do the work of blunting Iranian and al Qaeda influence with no need of any further involvement on our part. Aside from the moral problem of once again leaving behind those who believed we meant to stand and fight with them, there is the the question of whether such a strategy--if that is what one calls it--would work. What seems more likely is that Iranian influence will prevail and come to dominate the country. Sunni and al Qaeda opposition depends largely on assistance from Syria. There is no reason to believe that Assad would risk alienating the Iranian mullahs in such an environment. Some Iraqi Sunni resistance may persist for awhile, but absent Syrian support, both Sunni and al Qaeda instransigence should largely come to an end. It is even possible that Hezbollah and the al Qaeda component in Iraq will realize they have more to gain by cooperating than by opposing one another. Assad and Ahmadinejad have already made that determination, why shouldn't their proxies?
The better course would be to break up this alliance. We are in a position to do it and can with a modicum of determination and will. If Mr. James Baker is serious about setting a realist agenda for our policy in the Middle East he should volunteer for a mission to Damascus in order to convey the message that we expect Assad to deliver the heads of Hezbollah leaders Nasrallah and Mugniyah (wanted for bombing both our embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon) and al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu al-Masri. Tell Assad he has two weeks to comply.
Whether he does comply or not, we will have set in motion an irreversible course of turning Syrian influence away from Iran towards us. Whether it is accomplished under Assad's leadership or the next to ascend to his position should matter not one whit to us. For our purposes all that matters is sending the proper signal--that we are not going to retreat but instead charge full ahead, meaning we intend to keep all of our promises and win.