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The Politics of Cutting and Running

Recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell forcefully declared that the United States would leave Iraq after June 30 if requested to do so by a new interim Iraqi government. This suggests that the United States is now seeking a face-saving method for cutting its loses there--for withdrawing or substantially reducing its presence.

Increasingly the American effort seems to be devolving into a costly, enervating, lonely, and deeply-divisive occupation that the United States would eventually lose. As in Vietnam, the main military problem is to conquer an insurgent force that is tenacious and willing to accept casualties, and the key lies not in American military prowess, but in the willingness of the insurgents to continue their resistance. If this fails to break, it may prove essentially impossible to root them out by military means except by inflicting massive destruction--the Russian approach in Chechnya.

And the only way to keep American casualties from accruing would be to secure the troops in the preventive seclusion of well-protected bases, hardly the best approach for bringing peace, order, and democracy to Iraq. Moreover, if the U.S. can't provide order, ordinary Iraqis will become ever more dismayed at the occupation.

If American forces therefore effectively become more nearly the cause of conflict than its cure, it is entirely sensible to withdraw, passing the burden off to a patched-together domestic government (as in Vietnam), perhaps with some sort of international overseer. The hope would be that this government might be successful in quelling the insurgency not because it would be more militarily effective than the Americans, but because the insurgents would regard it as legitimate and thus stop or reduce their violence.

Withdrawal can be painful, but the process need not be permanently damaging politically. Policing forces that had suffered unacceptable losses were withdrawn from Lebanon in 1984 under Reagan and from Somalia in 1994 under Clinton, and in both cases the issue scarcely came up in ensuing elections.

More to the point may be the resolution of Vietnam. The U.S. plugged on in that war in part because it feared the domestic political consequences of defeat. But failure was substantially accepted at least in electoral politics when a face-saving agreement was crafted and a bit of time passed. Indeed, in 1976, a year after South Vietnam collapsed to Communism, Gerald Ford essentially took credit for it: when he became president, "we were still deeply involved in the problems of Vietnam," he pointed out, but now "we are at peace: not a single young American is fighting or dying on any foreign soil." His electoral challenger, Jimmy Carter, seems to have concluded that it was politically disadvantageous to point out the essential absurdity of Ford's ingenious argument.

With only a few months left until George W. Bush's election, there may not be enough time for Americans to so conveniently wave off the venture. But, while he will presumably continue to lambast the administration for the war, John Kerry is unlikely to advocate sending the troops back no matter how matters develop in the aftermath of withdrawal. Most likely, the public's attention will move on to other things, particularly the economy.

Withdrawal, it is often claimed, means that American prestige and influence will decline. However, it is certainly not clear that the American defeat in Vietnam had a longterm detrimental impact on such vaporous qualities.

A more important consequence might be that Osama bin Laden's theory that the Americans can be defeated, or at least productively inconvenienced, by inflicting comparatively small, but continuously draining, casualties on them will achieve encouraging confirmation. A venture designed and sold in part as a blow against international terrorists would thus end up emboldening and energizing them. A comparison might be made with Israel's orderly, even overdue, withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 that insurgents there took to be a great triumph for their terrorist tactics--and, most importantly, so did like-minded Palestinians who have since escalated their efforts to use terrorism to destroy Israel itself.

However, people like bin Laden are likely to envision victory in Iraq no matter how the venture comes out. They believe that America invaded Iraq as part of its plan to control the oil in the Persian Gulf area. But the United States does not intend to do that (at least not in the direct sense bin Laden and others doubtless consider to be its goal), nor does it seek to destroy Islam as many others also bitterly assert. Thus just about any kind of American withdrawal will be seen by such people as a victory for the harassing terrorist insurgents, who, they will believe, are due primary credit for forcing the United States to leave without accomplishing what they take to be its key objectives.

Another consequence of withdrawal is that all that self-infatuated talk about a brave new superpowered American "empire" will fade away. So there may be a bit of a bright side to the exercise as well.