December 7, 2006

Vietnamization 2.0

On Wednesday, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) released its final report, and while hardly groundbreaking, the contents of that analysis and recommendation represent a sobering departure from the delusional language of "stay the course" and "we are winning" that has been rote recitation from the Bush Administration. The opening sentence of the document's executive summary notes that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," and while the ISG's report is in no way binding, the rebuke to the policies of President Bush and his followers is clear: mature men of high diplomatic standing - at least in the persons of James Baker III and Lee Hamilton - have assessed the situation as dire, and pressure on the White House to change direction will be even heavier than it has become in recent weeks.

The conservative blogosphere, long enamored of the machismo of "regime change" and "spreading democracy" has reacted with dismay, dubbing the ISG the "Iraq Surrender Group" and questioning how we can ask men to die to "mitigate defeat". Unfortunately, that question should have been asked a long time ago, perhaps when wargames conducted in 1999 revealed that at least 400,000 troops would be required to invade and occupy Iraq; the administration pointedly ignored that inconvenient recommendation by firing the general who voiced it, and then invaded with less than half that many. Better questions to ask might have been "How can we ask men to die for a wretchedly-conceived fantasy that detracts from pursuing the real enemy, al-Qaeda?" or "Will the lessons of Vietnam (and now Iraq) ever teach the United States to stop wasting lives in countries about which our leaders are demonstrably ignorant?"

Indeed, despite the fact that casualty counts (to date) are much lower in Iraq than they were in the Vietnam War, the ISG exit strategy remains the same. Vietnamization - the passing of responsibility to the South Vietnamese during that conflict, and a precursor of "As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down" - was lipstick on the pig of failed policy 35 years ago, and the fact that the Report recommends what is effectively the "Iraqification" of the current conflict would be ironic if it weren't already tragic. Vietnamization as a means of creating stability was a failure, and as with the current recommendation, there was no time table for withdrawal - just rough goals that kept the U.S. in-country for years longer. Ultimately, it was rendered moot by a back door deal struck at the Paris Peace Accords which allowed the United States to declare victory and withdraw completely, leaving the Vietnamese to fight it out amongst themselves. This recommendation of the Iraq Study Group - the Iraqification element if you will - will also fail to stabilize Iraq.

What we will witness in the Persian Gulf over the coming months will be tragic: more loss of life; the potential collapse of Iraq into the status of an Iranian backwater and the rising friction that status will cause with Saudi Arabia; tension and likely combat along the border with Turkey as that country works to keep its Kurdish minority from seceding to join a de facto independent Iraqi Kurdistan. It will also happen whether or not the U.S. remains or fights on to "honor" those who have already fallen. To use a somewhat crass business analogy - but one that is "realist" to the core - losses to date are a sunk cost; since they cannot be reclaimed, they should not factor in determining our course going forward.

To be sure, there are positive recommendations in the Iraq Study Group report. But while it is without question better than the policy vacuum we have experienced to date, the lack of a schedule for troop withdrawal is an untenable political compromise. Worse, it is one that will provide the Bush Administration with just enough political cover to make nothing more than token adjustments, while "staying the course" in practice if not in name. Without a time-bound plan for withdrawing our forces, we risk sacrificing more American lives to a cause that was lost before it ever began, and George W. Bush is free to pass along his mess for someone else to clean up.

Enough is enough.

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