The Conventional Wisdom is that Iraq is a cautionary tale of lost prestige and ability to influence. But our experience in Vietnam–history–tells a different tale of how things might have been.
Former Reagan National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane writes:
A profoundly important point is being missed in the campaign debate over which candidate was right on Iraq. In 2006, when conditions on the ground were trending downward and a decision was required either to continue the struggle or to cut our losses, Barack Obama stated that the proposed deployment of more forces, the “surge,” was doomed to failure and instead called for a phased withdrawal of all forces within a defined period.
In short, Sen. Obama was willing to lose. It was an astonishing display of ignorance to be so cavalier about defeat, almost as if losing a war was tantamount to losing a set of tennis — something without lasting consequence.
I recall very vividly April 30, 1975, the day we acknowledged defeat in the Vietnam War — the day Ambassador Graham Martin and others were evacuated ignominiously from the roof of our embassy in Saigon. Only later did it become clear how damaging that defeat was.
There were consequences for all nations, especially small states who are vulnerable to great-power pressures. In the late 1970s it contributed to a greater Russian willingness to take risks and a more aggressive Soviet foreign policy. Indeed, in the years immediately following our defeat in Vietnam, an emboldened Soviet Union established a dominant influence in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Mozambique, Nicaragua and ultimately invaded Afghanistan with 100,000 troops.
Our loss also lessened our willingness to criticize the Soviet Union and thereby undermined the struggles of oppressed minorities inside that totalitarian state.
Losing a war also affects the behavior of allies who begin to wonder whether the United States can still muster the means and will to uphold its obligations, and to ask themselves whether they need at least to hedge their bets by being more conciliatory to adversaries. I recall very well the sudden rush of European foreign ministers to Moscow in the late ’70s without so much as a preliminary discussion with their counterpart in Washington.
Further, losing a war also has a profound effect on the thinking within our military concerning how it was led, restricted, or abused in wartime. Painful reflection on a loss penetrates every level of the military and conditions its future relationship with civilian leaders — as it surely did in the wake of the Vietnam War. Specifically, it led to the adoption, at military urging, of the Weinberger Doctrine, which asserted stringent criteria to be met in the future before any resort to the use of military force. These criteria included not committing forces to combat unless it was vital to our national interest, we had clearly defined political and military objectives, and unless the engagement had the support of the American people and Congress — and then only as a last resort.
Allies and adversaries could see that these criteria were virtually impossible to fulfill, thus worrying the former and encouraging the latter. Yet such was the effect on senior military leaders of losing a war they knew they could have won. We are seeing some of the same disdain within the military toward our political leadership today as a consequence of how civilian leaders mismanaged the war in its first three-plus years.
Losing a war also affects our body politic. Americans have a low tolerance for foreign wars; losing one only reinforces their inclination to avoid foreign involvement and focus on matters here at home. Now is such a time. Yet can you imagine how much worse our political stability would be today — faced with the financial and housing crises — if we were also coming home from losing a war?
The next president will enter office with the war in Iraq winding down but with the conflict in Afghanistan requiring urgent, focused attention. The stakes engaged there go well beyond restoring order in that country alone. How we emerge from Afghanistan will go far toward determining our ability to prevail in the global war against radical Islam, our ability to limit nuclear proliferation, and to bring order and the hope for a brighter future to the almost two billion people in South and Central Asia. These are issues of profound importance to the future security of our nation and our citizens. Losing is not an option, and no sensible leader should entertain the thought that it is.
If you have tips, questions, comments or suggestions, email me at email@example.com.