Viet Not

The history of the Vietnam War teaches that to preserve American strength and prestige, we must begin withdrawing from Iraq now.

By Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson

Tagged HistoryIraqVietnam

This past August, President George W. Bush stood at a lectern in a VFW hall in Kansas City, Missouri, and launched an attack on critics calling for an early withdrawal from Iraq. Invoking “the legacy of Vietnam,” he rued the prospect that Congress would “pull the rug out from under” American soldiers “just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq.” And even though many expert commentators, including Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, have roundly discredited it, the Vietnam analogy is not likely to fade away. Voicing the Bush Administration’s stance last month in the Washington Post, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman asserted as the “widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam” that “there was a much-improved balance of forces in Vietnam, reflected in the 1973 Paris agreement, and that Congress subsequently pulled the props out from under that balance of forces–dooming Indochina to a bloodbath.” Rudolph Giuliani, the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, draws the same comparison in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. “The consequences” of withdrawal, he writes, “were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.”

Recalling the jingoistic post-Vietnam T-shirt blurb, “Good Soldiers Betrayed By Gutless Politicians,” this view holds that the Vietnam War was lost at home and could have been won on the ground, and that such a victory would have ineluctably rendered the United States better able to meet the broader challenges of the Cold War. The ensuing lesson for the present day is that proceeding to military victory in the Iraq War will enable the United States to flatten the transnational Islamist terrorist threat, and that now is no time to cut and run. But the truth is that the bitter stab-in-the-back Vietnam narrative that fuels the Bush Administration’s argument is grossly and demonstrably inaccurate. The decline of American prestige and leverage, and the destabilization of Southeast Asia occasioned by Vietnam, resulted not from withdrawing too soon but, rather, from withdrawing too late. If we are serious about salvaging our strategic position in the Middle East, then we need to be clear-eyed about what history teaches us about interventions gone wrong–especially the war in Vietnam.

The Analogy Game

The Vietnam comparison represents the culmination of a series of
tendentious analogies waged by senior American officials to justify the continuing military presence in Iraq. General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Iraq, repeatedly bruits about the British counterinsurgency effort in Northern Ireland as a successful model for the American enterprise in Iraq. But that model is easily invalidated: British troops in Northern Ireland peaked at 30,000, against active Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers numbering perhaps500 (which yields a soldier-to-insurgent ratio of 60 to one); coalition forces in Iraq now stand at roughly 170,000, facing over 30,000 Sunni insurgents alone, for a ratio of less than five to one. And whereas Protestant “loyalist” terrorism in Northern Ireland was almost exclusively pro-British, broadly pro-state Iraqi Shia militias have targeted American troops as well as their Sunni enemies. Because the Northern Irish conflict was small and containable, claiming on average fewer than 40 British troops a year–P.J. O’Rourke once dubbed Northern Ireland “heck’s half-acre”–it was relatively easy to manage politically over the course of 25 years. Obviously, Iraq is not.

Undaunted by subtlety, the U.S. command in Iraq has glommed onto
other models, like the 1950s British suppression of the Chinese
communist insurgency in Malaya and the defeat of the bloody Salvadoran
insurgency in the 1980s. These too are readily distinguishable. In
Malaya, the British did an artful job of managing political and
economic incentives, but they faced only an ideological minority of an
ethnic minority, most of whom did not actively oppose the British and
the ethnic Malay majority; the British likewise enjoyed an
overwhelmingly superior force ratio. In El Salvador, there was a viable
central government steeped in Western political traditions to defend, a
relatively small number of insurgents, no sectarian dimension, and an
operational requirement of less than 100 American military advisers.
This made a “market solution” involving heavy economic aid and
incentives singularly appropriate. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland,
Malaya, and El Salvador, those whom we generally regard as the good
guys won. The British government and the pro-British Northern Irish
majority tamed the IRA sufficiently to open it to a political deal;
UK-backed Malays prevailed over Chinese communist insurgents; and a
pro-Western government remained in place in El Salvador at the expense
of Soviet-supported rebels. The fact that these stories ended so well
may explain the appeal of these purported Iraq precedents.

The Vietnam War has a different and more insidious relationship to
the American psyche, one all the more seductive and resonant today
because it does in fact bear objective similarities to the Iraq War.
Both were major, large-scale American engagements against unexpectedly
tough adversaries. Over time, both were met by dwindling public
support. But there are also obvious differences. The Vietnam War
evolved from a guerrilla insurgency into a major conventional conflict,
while the Iraq War has taken just the opposite course. And Vietnam’s
crowning characteristic is that the good guys lost. Indeed, the Vietnam
War is often cast as the first American defeat. As such, it cries out
for redemption of a cause betrayed. It is this last, highly emotive and
nationalistic impulse, rather than the war’s pedagogical utility, that
the Bush Administration seeks most acutely to exploit in implicitly
vowing “never again.”

A fortuitous cakewalk in the first Gulf War and an unexpectedly precipitous victory in the Cold War shortly thereafter gave us the luxury of shaking off a national leeriness of military intervention–the “Vietnam syndrome”–without coming to terms with how the war was lost or understanding its strategic consequences. Contrary to the stab-in-the-back narrative, the diminution in American prestige and leverage occasioned by the loss of the Vietnam War were temporary and more than offset by its unburdening effects, and the wider regional violence that followed that loss–in particular, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia–primarily resulted not from not the U.S. military’s withdrawal but from its pre-withdrawal escalation. But the Bush Administration has willfully ignored these realities and used Vietnam to amp up fears of American disempowerment. This misreading (or non-reading) of history not only re-opens old divides between hawks and doves, but portends disastrous policy choices.

The Real Vietnam

Before considering the actual defeat in Southeast Asia, it is
important to consider what would have constituted a victory. Outright
success would have seen the United States withdrawing from a durable,
democratic South Vietnam governed by a friendly elite respected by its
people, overseeing institutions capable of defending the country
against both external attacks and internal insurgents. As Lyndon
Johnson stated unambiguously in 1965, “Our objective is the
independence of South Vietnam and its freedom from attack.” In late
1966, however, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara felt compelled to
take grim stock of American efforts up to that point: “This important
war must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. But the
discouraging truth is that, as was the case in 1961 and 1963 and 1965,
we have not found the catalyst for training and inspiring them into
effective action.”

As the war proceeded, it became even clearer that there were no
plausible circumstances under which the United States might have won
the Vietnam War on Johnson’s original terms. In taking up a stiff
counterinsurgency challenge in Vietnam, the United States made itself
hostage to the effectiveness and commitment of the South Vietnamese
government. Furthermore, it became obvious that in Vietnam–as in
virtually all counterinsurgency situations–an agreement changing the
political conditions that spawned the insurgency was indispensable to a
sustainable peace on terms acceptable to Washington and Saigon. Unless
that happened, military gains, no matter how audacious, could not be
sustained. Yet throughout the U.S. involvement, the South Vietnamese
government remained decadent, stagnant, and incorrigible. As historian
George Herring has noted, “The United States found to its chagrin that
as its commitment increased, its leverage diminished.” While there were
undeniable counterinsurgency successes in the early 1970s, Saigon was
not up to consolidating them by winning the confidence of its

Meanwhile, the United States lost public support for the war–not
because the American people were pampered, spineless, and lacked
tolerance for casualties, but because they were convinced that the
American leaders had conducted the war so incompetently and dishonestly
for so long that victory could no longer be retrieved. If this sounds
familiar, it should: Americans today have essentially the same attitude
toward the Iraq War.

The unwinnability of the Vietnam War is not an assessment gleaned
from hindsight; it was readily apparent by late 1967. Although
Johnson’s informal council of “wise men” were whipsawed by the need to
cut America’s losses and the impulse to decisively impose its will,
McNamara was resolutely pessimistic about American prospects. In a
November 1 memorandum to Johnson, he wrote prophetically: “As the
months go by, there will be both increasing pressure for widening the
war and continued loss of support for American participation in the
struggle. There will be increasing calls for American withdrawal…There is, in my opinion, a very real question whether under these
circumstances it will be possible to maintain our efforts in South
Vietnam for the time necessary to complete our objectives there.”

The United States government, however, morbidly delayed its exit
from Vietnam on the pretext of a fruitless “Vietnamization” process
begun under the first Nixon Administration. The period was marked by a
fatally incoherent combination of factors: the slow and indecisive
withdrawal of American troops, an unmotivated South Vietnamese military
(despite an accelerated U.S.-sponsored buildup), and the aggravation of
local and regional populations by the increasingly brutal application
of U.S. military power. Rather than seriously attempting to induce the
South Vietnamese to develop institutions sufficient to sustain the
state, the United States kept pressing for a military solution,
expanding the war to Cambodia and stepping up the air campaign against
the North. Despite effective rural development programs that diminished
the insurgency, in 1972 the United States was basically left with what
it had at the start: a decadent government in Saigon. In fact, things
were worse. Ten years on, the problem was compounded by instability
fomented by the war. In particular, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia had
hardened the communist Khmer Rouge’s resistance against pro-U.S.
Cambodian leader Lon Nol and lent momentum to Pol Pot’s genocidal

Having spent its domestic political capital on Cambodia, the Nixon
Administration had little choice in 1972 but to eke out the Paris Peace
Accords, under which North Vietnam would observe a cease-fire following
a U.S. military withdrawal. But by then Nixon, devoid of popular
American support for further engagement in Vietnam, had to negotiate
with Hanoi from weakness. The Paris accords required a wholesale
American pullout, but they did not require the North Vietnamese Army
(NVA) to withdraw from South Vietnam. Its patience exhausted, Congress
would not authorize funds to equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam
(ARVN) with the hardware it would have needed to repel a major NVA
offensive. The U.S. military guarantee to South Vietnam came to little
more than Nixon’s secret 1972 pledge to President Nguyen Van Thieu that
the United States would retaliate militarily if North Vietnam violated
the cease-fire–a pledge rendered empty by the 1973 congressional ban on
all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia and its meager 1974
appropriation ($700 million) for South Vietnam. By the end of 1973,
Watergate had so damaged Nixon’s standing with Congress that he was
powerless to revive any congressional support for U.S. activities in
Vietnam. When the decisive offensive came in 1975, the Ford
Administration could muster only toothless diplomatic protests. North
Vietnamese troops soon overran Saigon, and the South surrendered
unconditionally to the North in April 1975 as American helicopters
staged an unforgettably shambolic and tragic evacuation.

Even leaving aside historical differences between the conflicts, the
Iraq-Vietnam analogy is largely a straw man. Most of those who oppose a
continued major U.S. military presence in Iraq have not, thus far,
proposed a 1975 vintage withdrawal that would leave the Iraqi
government without recourse to U.S. diplomatic or military support to
secure its position in the regional political environment or military
assistance to prevent state implosion. Indeed, all serious proposals
call for robust diplomacy to temper destabilizing external influences
and a U.S. quick-reaction force deployed in the region to deter and
contain any security crisis in Iraq. That could change, of course. As
long as large numbers of U.S. troops remain deployed in Iraq, it is not
at all difficult to foresee circumstances on the ground–say, a suicide
attack on the order of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut–that
would push opposition to U.S. involvement past the tipping point for
measured and prudent compromise. In that event, only wholesale
withdrawal, with little consideration for residual help to Baghdad,
might satisfy a majority of Americans and their elected
representatives. If that happened, American power and influence in the
region would dwindle precipitously.

When to Withdraw?

In other words, the question is not whether to withdraw or not, but
rather when and how. And in that regard, Vietnam does in fact offer
some important lessons for today. Leaving aside the question of whether
the domino theory ever held water, it is arguable that the United
States had little choice but to commit its troops and prestige to the
South Vietnamese regime, lest it risk undermining the trust of
collective security partners. At the same time, countering a
nationalist communist movement like Ho Chi Minh’s in North Vietnam was
always going to be difficult, as Hanoi enjoyed the support of a
dedicated population, an army to match, and the substantial resources
of the Soviet Union and China. This triad of assets gave North Vietnam
staying power that the United States could never muster. Given that
these factors were increasingly understood by the last years of the
Johnson Administration, when was the best time to withdraw?

There were, in fact, countless opportunities. Historian Fredrik
Logevall has argued persuasively that America’s best move would have
been to start a strategic withdrawal–that is, an orderly military
disengagement that also involved residual political support for South
Vietnam and regional stability–during what he calls the “Long 1964.”
This was the period between late 1963 and early 1965, when doubts about
Vietnam’s importance to U.S. and Western security, the ability of the
Saigon government to do its part, and the U.S. military’s
counterinsurgency capabilities were rife among American decision
makers. The fear of appearing weak, however, prevailed. “If we leave
Vietnam with our tail between our legs,” admonished General Maxwell
Taylor, who was about to become U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, in a
July 1964 memorandum, “the consequences of this defeat in the rest of
Asia, Africa and Latin America would be disastrous.”

Doubts about the viability of the war spurred U.S. peace initiatives
from 1965 to 1967, but mutual rigidity as to South Vietnam’s future
status and continuing majority domestic support for the war deprived
them of critical momentum. The next promising moment for a strategic
withdrawal–and a more plausible “what if”–would have been in 1968 or
1969, shortly after North Vietnam’s resolve had been vividly
demonstrated by the Tet Offensive and as domestic U.S. support
decisively began to erode. Suppose, for instance, the United States had
opted for a true strategic withdrawal beginning soon after the Tet
Offensive in 1968, whereby Washington had begun negotiations with Hanoi
and opened the possibility of a phased withdrawal in exchange for an
open-ended cease-fire. Indeed, Johnson, confronting the rising
pessimism of key advisers, declared the United States open to
negotiations in March 1968. But even though talks were convened in
Paris, the commitment to a political solution was far too tentative to
gather momentum. Moreover, Johnson’s simultaneous announcement that he
would not stand for reelection effectively put an end to the talks and
gave way to military escalation.

Had the peace initiative been more robust, the American public might have supported it. In turn, the initiative could have strengthened South Vietnam’s position while reducing casualties, which might then have afforded the White House the political capital necessary to extend a credible military guarantee to South Vietnam, as well as to convince Congress to channel the South Vietnamese government the funds and equipment required to establish parity with the North. Saigon might then have been able to salvage a stalemate. Even if Saigon had then failed, the United States’ status would not have suffered to the extent that it did in 1975. It was not the United States’ failure to win the Vietnam War that most derogated its prestige. Indeed, exiting Vietnam allowed the United States to refocus on Europe, consolidate détente, and devote closer attention to opening relations with China. Furthermore, the United States eventually came roaring back in the 1980s with Reagan’s huge defense buildup, Star Wars, and rollback in Central America, Grenada, and Afghanistan. What lingered in the memories of its allies and adversaries, though, was its foolish, decade-long commitment to a losing strategy in Vietnam that foreclosed the possibility of an honorable draw or even a negotiated defeat.

The Bush Administration’s insistence on a primarily military
solution to the Iraq problem threatens perverse consequences comparable
to the slow decay of American prestige and leverage that occurred in
1973–75. If indeed the war turns out to be unwinnable, the provisional
assessment of the United States as a stubborn, ignorant giant will
become entrenched in the thinking of allies and adversaries alike,
rendering them less amenable to American influence. The only way
Washington can short-circuit that development is by making a
late-course correction in its Iraq strategy, under which it adopts a
less militarized and more conciliatory approach that allows it to
manage Gulf security matters in a measured, deliberate fashion,
alongside other exigent security concerns in different parts of the

Vietnam Redux?

Of course, Iraq isn’t Vietnam, and it is the differences between the two that make arguments for staying the course today so risible. The Vietnam intervention could be sold (for a while) as an integral part of the Cold War. Arguably it made sense as a means of reinforcing the trust of collective security partners, setting limits for the Soviets and the Chinese, and strengthening containment, given that the nuclear risks of fighting a proxy war in Eastern Europe were too great. But the Iraq War–despite the Bush Administration’s best efforts–has not scanned as an essential element of the war on terror, at least since it became clear Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no meaningful links to al Qaeda.

Absent the original justification for the invasion, several
arguments for staying put have emerged. Yet each is fundamentally
flawed. The first revolves around assumptions about what would happen
to Iraq if the United States left. There are certainly some legitimate
concerns about regional containment: Iran, for example, does have
strategic interests in extending its power into the Gulf via Iraq. But
the United States does not face a peer competitor with imperial
ambitions in the Middle East, and its regional adversaries do not have
a great-power patron comparable to the Soviet Union or China. Iran, in
other words, is no Soviet Union. Furthermore, North Vietnam was, by and
large, ethnically and religiously homogeneous, and its people were
united behind its government, while the South Vietnamese were largely
disillusioned by a decadent government and the ham-fisted U.S. strategy
of attrition. Iraq is fiercely heterogeneous, both religiously and
ethnically, and it is in the midst of a civil war between Sunnis and
Shia. Beyond that, while the civil imperative in Vietnam was to
maintain the status quo, in Iraq it is considerably more difficult: to
complete regime change from autocracy to democracy.

Overall, these realities suggest that in the event of a U.S.
withdrawal, outside powers–including Al Qaeda, Iran, and the United
States–will lack the political or military means to comprehensively
control events inside Iraq. Whereas communists readily took power in
South Vietnam, jihadists will not take power in Iraq. Nevertheless, a
forced withdrawal following abject U.S. military failure in Iraq, A la
South Vietnam, would leave the Iraqi government bereft of strong
American backing. While it is unclear what difference this would make
to the outcome of the civil war, it is clear that a well-planned,
orderly pullout would be more likely to result in congressional
approval of financial and operational support for the Iraqi government
that might preserve some American influence in Iraq.

Second, on the operational side, proponents of intervention, the
surge, and a continuing military presence in Iraq–the Brookings
Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, for example–argue
that counterinsurgency is finally working. But relative operational
success by the U.S. military is only a part of the overall question of
political victory. In 1970-72, America’s military strategy was finally
working in Vietnam, too. Indeed, by 1970 the insurgency in South
Vietnam was all but kaput. The Vietcong cadres had simply impaled
themselves on superior American firepower during Tet. Hanoi understood
this, and from Tet on, its war strategy was to build up and sustain
North Vietnamese combat power in and around South Vietnam. The United
States sought to disrupt and interdict Hanoi’s efforts while building
up the ARVN, but it never succeeded in building a South Vietnamese army
that was up to the task of defending the country–at least in the
absence of U.S. air power. This lesson alone is bad news for the Bush
Administration, given the chronic difficulty it is having in getting
the Iraqi army up to standard.

There is also a deeper problem with the assertions of impending
“success.” The insurgency in South Vietnam stemmed from agrarian
hardship and was partly remediable by U.S.-assisted land reform and
modernization initiatives. The Iraqi insurgency, in contrast, was
directly caused by the United States, whose swift U.S. decapitation
campaign precipitated the sudden collapse of the state with no serious
plan for establishing order in the absence of Saddam Hussein’s strong
if brutal national structures. Multiple insurgencies, justified by
sectarian fear and fueled by opportunism, inexorably filled the power vacuum. The continuing American military presence stoked the violence. Since many, if not most, Iraqis see the United States as the source of their present grief, Washington is unlikely to gain sufficient credibility among Iraqis to win over the insurgents. In addition, with Afghanistan in need of close attention, the United States would not have the troops available to complete the job even if the Administration were inclined to allocate other resources to Iraq. And even if mainly soft power were required to make counterinsurgency more effective, the U.S. civilian effort in Iraq compares dismally with that mounted in Vietnam. As of January 2007, fewer than 200 U.S. civilian personnel were assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams charged with rehabilitating an Iraqi population of 28 million. This contrasts with some 1,700 civilian (mainly USAID) employees assigned to the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program during the Vietnam War, covering a South Vietnamese population of 18 million. And even CORDS had mixed results at best in terms of “winning hearts and minds.”

In other words, as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq, American
efforts are bound to have an inherently feckless
one-step-forward-two-steps-back quality. To capitalize on any military
advances that the surge has produced, the Iraqi military–not American
forces–would have to consolidate the gains, and Iraqi politicians would
have to strike courageous bargains. Neither Iraqi institution appears
capable of doing its part, just as neither ARVN nor the Saigon
government was able to do theirs during the Vietnam War. In citing
strictly military successes of the surge–a degree of pacification in
areas of intensified U.S. occupation, the apparent degradation of
insurgents’ and terrorists’ operational capabilities–as indications of
progress in Iraq, the Bush Administration thus commits the same error
that the Johnson and Nixon administrations did with respect to Vietnam:
emphasizing that we are winning on points while suppressing the
likelihood that the resiliency of the insurgency, Iraqi military
inadequacy, and Iraqi political dysfunction will eventually combine to
inflict a knockout punch.

Given this structural feature of our involvement in Iraq, domestic
U.S. popular support is unlikely to last. As Eric Larson and Bogdan Savych’s
RAND Corporation study has shown, the American public will tolerate a
high number of casualties if it is convinced they are serving vital
American interests in a cause that can be won in the foreseeable future
and if it sees wall-to-wall agreement among Congress, the
administration, and the punditocracy. When the stars align in this way,
as they did during World War II–and, indeed, for much of the Vietnam
era–Americans will accept large losses. But when the public regards the
spilling of American blood as strategically unnecessary or even
pointless, as it did in Somalia in 1993, it is understandably loath to
accept casualties in abundance.

To be sure, U.S. fatalities in Vietnam dwarfed the fewer than 4,000 Americans killed so far in Iraq, and the rate of military losses in Vietnam was far higher than that in Iraq. But public intolerance is not attributable to any inherent, quantifiable squeamishness on the electorate’s part. As with Vietnam, the factors most responsible for undermining the national will are the imperturbable and almost surreal incompetence and duplicity of the United States’ war leaders. On account of these transgressions–in particular, the grudgingly conceded fact that the casus belli were at best contrived and at worst simply manufactured, and the extravagantly stupid failure to anticipate a robust insurgency–an open-ended commitment is politically out of the question. Indeed, support for the war was thoroughly gutted by 2006, when Democrats, propelled by intensifying opposition to the war, seized control of Congress.

The Message of Vietnam

Iraq is geostrategically more critical to American interests than
Vietnam. The loss of Vietnam certainly depressed American status and
morale, especially in light of the disgraceful way the war ended. But
ultimately, Southeast Asia didn’t matter all that much strategically
and, as we now know, adding a unified Vietnam under the communist tally
didn’t actually increase the Soviet Union’s global power. America’s
pullout from Vietnam led to a thorough regional disengagement that was
ultimately liberating for the United States. The same cannot be said
for Iraq, if only because it is in a place that matters very much to
the rest of the world (and now, thanks to Amrica’s rash intervention in
2003, to terrorists).

Thus, the United States cannot abandon or ostracize Iraq, as it did Vietnam. But contrary to Bush Administration shills and conservative pundits, this does not mean that any form of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will have terrible and persistent consequences–namely, an all-out Sunni/Shia war; the emboldenment of Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda; and diminished energy security. Those consequences are much more likely to arise from a panicky exit springing from continued American futility. Consequently, the Vietnam experience counsels not staying put but rather minimizing the U.S. military presence soon, while still promoting political progress in Iraq and regional stability. No cost-free solution exists; any “victory” would achieve far less than what was originally envisioned by the war’s architects and strongest defenders. But a strategic withdrawal would constitute a mature response to what has become an obviously futile quest and to the American people’s loss of trust and confidence in the way the war has been conducted.

The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam over the course of 1973 to 1975
proved so divisive precisely because a fictional “who lost the war”
story line was pushed by conservatives in an effort to mask the inept
conduct of a war they had backed. This stratagem recalled that of
German nationalists during the Weimar era, who cultivated the myth that
the Ludendorff Offensive of spring 1918 had effectively won World War
I, but that democratic German politicians–the so-called “November
criminals,” some of Hitler’s favorite scapegoats–had discarded victory
through craven capitulation. Such tendentious posturing should not
cloud the fact that U.S. involvement in Vietnam ultimately exceeded
what the public would tolerate. The decline of public support, coupled
with U.S. indecision, led to a frenzied withdrawal behind a political
fig leaf and a dearth of post-withdrawal support for any legitimate
South Vietnamese government.

The same thing could happen with respect to Iraq. If we do not exercise strategic discretion and design a near-term military disengagement that incorporates residual U.S. support for Iraq, we are likely to be forced–by domestic opinion at least as much as facts on the ground in Iraq–into a Vietnam-esque withdrawal that leaves no room for such support for Iraq and diminished American standing throughout the world. That fate is the one we tempt by keeping troops in Iraq when their presence there cannot secure America’s interests and only weakens the United States’ strategic position. At the end of the day, America’s allies value, and its adversaries fear, not its persistence in a dubious policy that is unlikely to serve its own interests, but its preservation of viable strategic options.

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Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson are, respectively, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

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