Some opponents of the Iraq war are toying with the idea of American defeat. A number of them are simply predicting it, while others advocate measures that would make it more likely. Lending intellectual respectability to all this is an argument that takes a strange comfort from the outcome of the Vietnam War. The defeat of the American enterprise in Indochina, it is said, turned out not to be as bad as expected. The United States recovered, and no lasting price was paid.
We beg to differ.
The 1975 Communist victory in Indochina led to horrors that engulfed the region. The victorious Khmer Rouge killed one to two million of their fellow Cambodians in a genocidal, ideological rampage. In Vietnam and Laos, cruel gulags and “re-education” camps enforced repression. Millions of people fled, mostly by boat, with thousands dying in the attempt.
Now that is a most interesting interpretation of events. It is clear that the length and ferocity of the war in Vietnam destabilized the political situation in Cambodia. Had the war come to a conclusion much sooner, Vietnamese Communists would not have established as strong a presence in Cambodia. Had we not repeatedly bombed Cambodia, killing Cambodians who had nothing to do with the war in Vietnam, we would not have inflamed the polarization of the communists and the anti-communists Cambodia. In other words, had we resigned ourselves to the loss of South Vietnam much sooner, in the early to mid-1960’s, there is considerably less chance that a regime as brutal and tyrannical as the Khmer Rouge would have come to power, as they arose in the context of a decade of fighting in Vietnam.
The defeat had a lasting and significant strategic impact. Leonid Brezhnev trumpeted that the global “correlation of forces” had shifted in favor of “socialism,” and the Soviets went on a geopolitical offensive in the third world for a decade. Their invasion of Afghanistan was one result. Demoralized European leaders publicly lamented Soviet aggressiveness and American paralysis.
Well yes, the defeat had a “lasting” impact if by lasting you mean, until the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan and then eventually defeated in the Cold War. The Soviet “offensive” certainly resulted in more deaths than would have occurred otherwise, but it’s extremely difficult to argue that the Soviets would have closed up shop and stopped funding revolutions and insurgencies the world over had we “won” in Vietnam (our “victory” being only to hold out even longer, as no ultimate victory was ever possible.)
And despite the defeat in 1975, America’s 10 years in Indochina had positive effects. Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister of Singapore, has well articulated how the consequences would have been worse if the United States had not made the effort in Indochina. “Had there been no U.S. intervention,” he argues, the will of non-communist countries to resist communist revolution in the 1960s “would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist.” The domino theory would have proved correct.
That is truly a strange argument. As I’ve just argued, the war in Vietnam destabilized Cambodia. It also destabilized Laos, a country that attempted to remain neutral throughout the conflict, and resulted in a Communist regime coming to power in that country. There’s little doubt that had the Vietnamese communists been victorious sooner, they still would have agitated for change in neighboring countries. But repeated incursions by the Vietnamese and extremely excessive and illegal bombing campaigns by us, both a result of an escalation of the war, set the tone for a communist takeover. If the domino theory was correct in any sense at all, it is only because we made it so.
George Orwell wrote that the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. But anyone who thinks an American defeat in Iraq will bring a merciful end to this conflict is deluded. Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamist extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate. Perhaps that is why so much of the current debate seeks to ignore these consequences.
Now it’s true that here and there arguments are being made by opponents of the war that it would actually be better for the Iraqis if we left. That’s up for debate, as there are arguments both for and against that proposition that I won’t get into. But who’s really arguing that us leaving will bring an “end” to the war? Nobody with half a brain thinks that if we leave the Sunni insurgents and their allies in Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups will just lay down their arms and go back to their day jobs. Now it’s true that there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of politicians who’ll say straight up that we need to leave even if the result is a worsening of the conflict, because we can’t stop it from getting worse anyway. But serious commentators who oppose the war, and about 95% of the liberal and anti-war blogs that I read, do say just that.
As for the rest of their argument…it’s really only an extension of the “defeat makes us look weak!” approach to foreign policy:
The new strategy of the coalition and the Iraqis, ably directed by Gen. David Petraeus, offers the best prospect of reversing the direction of events — provided that we show staying power. Osama bin Laden said, a few months after 9/11, that “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” The United States, in his mind, is the weak horse. American defeat in Iraq would embolden the extremists in the Muslim world, demoralize and perhaps destabilize many moderate friendly governments, and accelerate the radicalization of every conflict in the Middle East.
Well yeah, it sure would. But rational thinkers who ponder the consequences of this war realize that such an outcome is inevitable, and that it is the result of a hasty and poorly thought out invasion, not the result of “weakness” on our part. In fact, their list of horribles is pretty much coming true as I type this, as we continue to fight, because we continue to fight. I honestly don’t know why this has to be explained to anybody, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes, in war, you just lose. The conclusion of the war in Iraq is no longer in our hands, if it ever was. We maintain the illusion that it is because the Sunni insurgents (or the Mahdi Army, or Al Qaeda, or whoever) will never drive us out of Iraq until we elect to leave. Occupying forces have fallen prey to this illusion in almost every insurgency in the course of human history, because of the nature of insurgencies. If the insurgents had the power to fight us “straight-up” and drive us out of Iraq, they would. They do not. Instead, they have the power to make the war costly for us, all out of proportion to any possible benefit we could receive by staying. But the occupier can always blind himself to this inevitable result, and argue for “resolve” and “strength” and “staying power” because the insurgents cannot militarily drive him out.
The fact is, we cannot win in Iraq. The conflict is now so far out of our hands that even an additional thirty-thousand soldiers will ultimately make no difference. You might argue “Well, we can’t win, but we can’t really lose either unless we want to.” That is simply not true. We can continue to damage our standing in the world, continue to degrade the fighting ability and morale of our armed forces, continue to radicalize the Islamic world against us, and continue to suffer the poisonous effect this war has had on our domestic politics. We most assuredly can lose, at the same time that our forces continue to fight in Iraq. The only difference between us and any nation that has ever faced total defeat on the battlefield, is that we must force ourselves to recognize that we have lost. Our enemy cannot do it for us. This was no less true in Vietnam than it is today in Iraq, and revising the history of Vietnam will not change that lesson. “Staying power” means nothing at this point beyond sheer bull-headedness and an unwillingness to admit to reality. It is not a recipe for winning a war, and it is long past time we acknowledge such.