Americans may be bracing themselves for a replay of 1975, but the conclusion of the US war in Iraq will be quite unlike the debacle that ended our involvement in Vietnam.
Some in the Bush camp like to revive the specter of ’75 because it makes any withdraw from Iraq seem disastrous. Surely we cannot once again allow Americans to be airlifted off the roof of our last stronghold in a key country. If Democrats cause such a withdrawal, they can be blamed for the defeat–that is the implicit threat. For some opponents of the Administration, the idea of Vietnam redux also has appeal: it associates George W. Bush with the ultimate kind of failure, a battlefield defeat.
But it won’t be like that. In Vietnam, our sworn enemy–the Viet Cong–overran the whole country in which we had been fighting for more than a decade, established an effective but repressive central government, completely banished us and our allies, aligned the country with our global rival, and sent many of our former clients fleeing onto the high seas in tiny boats. This was a textbook example of the end of a war. We were the losers; they were the winners.
In Iraq, after major US combat operations cease, the flag will still fly over the US Embassy. The Embassy will probably remain one of the most important power centers in the country, disbursing billions in aid and coordinating various military operations for years to come. There will likely be whole brigades of US soldiers stationed “in country,” at least in the Kurdish north. The national government may lack effective control over its territory or may tilt to Iran, but in either case I’m sure it will keep lines open with the US and Europe. Meanwhile, our sworn enemy, al Qaida in Iraq, will face serious challenges. The Shiite majority will do its best to wipe al Qaida out–with the help of Iran and some ruthless Shiite militias. Most of al Qaida’s foreign jihadists will move on to countries where they can get an easier shot at the US, Europe, or Israel. Iraq may be in a desperate condition, but it will not be in the hands of our enemy.
If the US reduces its presence dramatically and a new administration directs its attention elsewhere, the Western press corps will pay diminished attention to the internecine conflict and humanitarian disaster that drags on in Iraq. That means that the domestic political consequences of withdrawing are smaller than people imagine–much smaller than the consequences of Vietnam. The moral stain of the War is enormous, but it won’t play out as a military defeat unless our politicians collude in portraying it that way.