“Peace with honor.” This was the Nixon administration’s euphemism for disengagement from South Vietnam, a place where corruption and incompetence had long doomed any hope of victory; even a victory as modest as the simple negative objective of preserving the political independence of tiny South Vietnam.
Today marks the first of a series of disengagements of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Iraq’s major cities and moved to take up blocking positions along likely infiltration routes into these same cities. The hope — and it is little more than that — is that in the time remaining between today and 2012, U.S. forces can manage to prevent a collapse of Iraq’s fragile political independence and achieve what eluded them after 1973: peace with honor in Iraq.
The good news is that from the accession of General David Petraeus to command to the present, it is now fair to say that the “honor” part is not in question. In Nixon’s time “honor” meant “no obvious defeat.” Yet the honor of U.S. conduct in Vietnam remains a point of extreme controversy to this day. Many historians have argued that most U.S. armed forces in Vietnam de-civilized and de-soldierized: becoming viscous, drug-impaired war criminals. Others remember many who served with restraint, professionalism, and honor in the deepest sense of the word. To be fair, the weight of evidence pushes toward the barbarism side, but the truth is we will never actually know. Today, notwithstanding Abu Ghraib and five years of faith-based strategy, diplomacy, and politics during the Bush administration’s tenure, “honor” once again means self-sacrifice and right conduct.
Since 2007, when U.S. strategy shifted dramatically in Iraq, U.S. armed forces have been dedicated to protecting noncombatants and by that means creating the crucial space for politics to resolve the underlying issues that lead young men to take up arms in the first place. Assaults against “evildoers” remain important, but have been conducted in a much more careful, methodical, and systematic fashion; and never, one must add, at the expense of Iraqi civilians. In short, U.S. armed forces can no longer be defeated in Iraq. The U.S. public understands that its new presidential administration is committed to pursuing more modest political objectives in Iraq with more effective tools than armed force. As a result, U.S. armed forces are preparing to leave Iraq in good order.
In fact, the mere physical presence of U.S. armed forces — which in the main were never designed as an occupation and transition force — had become (and remains) the single biggest obstacle to the achievement of a stable, prosperous Iraq. U.S. armed forces understood this as early as 2005. Their core concern then (as now) was that they not be blamed for “defeat” in Iraq. In this goal they have succeeded, largely due to unflagging public support and sympathy, and their tireless efforts to resolve the contradictions between what their experience and professionalism told them on the one hand, and the often foolish demands of their civilian leadership on the other hand.
The departure of U.S. armed forces from Iraq has another, less obvious benefit. Currently, most commentators believe that a U.S. withdrawal will signal a victory for Iran and fast-forward Iran’s penetration of Iraqi politics. On the contrary. U.S. departure will remind Iraqis — who with the exception of its Kurds and regardless of religious affiliation are virtually all Arabs — that Iranians are Persians. Iran is likely to have as much luck bossing about the Iraqis after a U.S. withdrawal as China did bossing about the Vietnamese in 1975.
But there is bad news as well. After it became obvious that self-defense could not stand as a justification for the invasion, conquest, and occupation of a distant sovereign state, Americans turned to the positive objective of aiding Iraq’s transition to a stable, democratic state; with the understanding that “democratic” meant “like us.” This would protect us from terrorism, high oil prices, and just make us feel good. It wouldn’t hurt Israel either. But nothing like that is even a remote possibility. What follows progressive U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will look very much like what preceded its intervention in 2003. Within a decade, expect to see the consolidation of a top-down authority structure (very much like that in today’s Russian Federation), like as not dominated by Shii factions. Expect this consolidation of power to be attended by fighting between the Shii-dominated center and Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, as well as extreme tension between Iraq and its neighbors: Sau’di Arabia, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
In the end, success in Iraq — one could hardly call it “victory” — may come down to simply engineering a soft landing: a return to the way things were in 1980, when the United States was allied with an unpalatable but stable Iraq against an even more unpalatable and more dangerous Iran. Of course, that’s if we’re lucky.
Ivan Arreguîn-Toft is an assistant professor in the History and International Relations Department at Boston University and author of How the Weak Win Wars.
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