The FP Memo

The FP Memo: The Endgame in Iraq

The FP Memo: The Endgame in Iraq

TO: CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden
FROM: Kurt Campbell and Shawn Brimley
RE: The Consequences of Losing in Iraq

American policymakers and intelligence analysts are currently struggling to consider the potential repercussions of failure in Iraq. Forty years ago, an earlier generation of U.S. policymakers were thinking about the implications of defeat in another conflict — Vietnam.

During the summer of 1967, then CIA Director Richard Helms asked for a quiet review of the global political and strategic consequences of an American failure in Vietnam. The result was a classified memorandum circulated on Sept. 11, 1967, "Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam," which detailed a lengthy list of potential dark outcomes and worrisome prospects.

Excerpts from this document — with only minor edits — offer eerie parallels to the very different set of circumstances the United States faces today in Iraq. In considering the Iraq war’s endgame, the U.S. government would be wise to review its own notes.



1. At some stage in most debates about the Vietnam IRAQ war, questions like the following emerge: What would it actually mean for the US if it failed to achieve its stated objectives in Vietnam IRAQ? Are our vital interests in fact involved? Would abandonment of the effort really generate other serious dangers?

2. What we are attempting in this paper is to provide some greater precision about the probable costs, for American policy and interests as a whole, of an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam IRAQ. It is not assumed in this inquiry that such an outcome is now likely; it has been demonstrated, in fact, that the Communists INSURGENTS cannot win if the US is determined to prevent it. But the question of what it would mean for the US if its own objectives are not achieved is relevant and fair. The debate itself shows the need for a sounder basis by which to measure the costs of an unfavorable outcome against the exertions which would presumably still be required to achieve a favorable one.

3. What we mean by "unfavorable outcome" needs to be defined with some realism. We are not discussing the entirely implausible hypothesis of a political-military collapse, say, the precipitate withdrawal of American forces or sweeping political concessions tantamount to granting Hanoi THE ENEMY outright achievement of its aims in the South IRAQ. It seems realistic to believe, given the present scale of US involvement and the sacrifices already made, that this government would approach a settlement short of its aims only by a series of steps involving gradual adjustment of our present political-military posture. Apart from the domestic political pressures that would cause this to be so, the very concern to minimize unfavorable effects on other relationships and on the American world position would argue strongly for such a course.


8. The failure of American policy in Vietnam IRAQ would have repercussions worldwide; it cannot be thought of merely as a local or even as a regional event. This is so, not only because world attention has been so intensively focused on the drama of Vietnam IRAQ for so long, but even more importantly, because the US is involved.

11. The contingency we are discussing in this paper would constitute a rather dramatic demonstration that there are certain limits on US power, a discovery which would be unexpected for many, disconcerting for some, and encouraging to others… Most would probably agree that the US could achieve its objectives… if it persisted long enough and paid the cost. But the compelling proposition emerging from the situation would be that the US, acting within the constraints imposed by its traditions and public attitudes, cannot crush a revolutionary AN INSURGENT movement which is sufficiently large, dedicated, competent, and well-supported. In a narrow sense, this means more simply that the structure of US military power is ill-suited to cope with guerrilla warfare waged by a determined, resourceful, and politically astute opponent. This is not a novel discovery. It has long been suspected. What our postulated situation would do is to reveal it dramatically.


34. A more challenging question is whether the Soviets IRANIANS might not make a reappraisal of American power which would tempt them into rashly aggressive moves. We know their preoccupation with the psychology of power. While they would realize that objectively American capabilities were undiminished, they might speculate on the disorientation of American leadership and on a loss of nerve. We think there is some chance that the Soviets IRANIANS would wish to try on some such hypothesis. It is impossible to say where and how they might move to test American will. If they did so, it would probably be in a tentative manner; any really dangerous probe would be ended as soon as they were satisfied that the US did not accept that any general change in the relations of power had occurred.


36. It seems likely that, in some Communist parties AL QAEDA and in some other leftist JIHADIST groups, armed violence as the way to power would acquire greater appeal. Some, stirred by the romantic revolutionary aura which might seem to surround the Vietnamese JIHADISTS in victory, might actually try to imitate them. Manifestations of this sort would be most likely to occur in Southeast Asia THE MIDDLE EAST itself.

37. We doubt, however, that such impulses would result in a much more widespread and serious Communist insurgency TERRORIST problem than would obtain in any case, either in Latin America THE MIDDLE EAST or elsewhere. If Communists JIHADISTS in some countries temporarily acquired more will to fight, the odds for or against success for such ventures in any particular national setting would remain essentially the same.


41. Certain states which, formally or informally, have linked their security to reliance on US power would be the most troubled… This applies especially in the Middle East among the moderate Arab states and among states on the southern borders of the USSR EUROPE.

There might be some tendency among these to believe that US power had been overrated or was on the wane.

Less than five months after this memo was drafted, the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of offensive operations throughout South Vietnam by North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas, caught U.S. forces and the American public by surprise. In the aftermath of that setback, Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, was replaced and American strategy shifted from conventional operations to counterinsurgency. In many ways, the shift in strategy came too late to alter the outcome of the war. Thirty thousand additional American troops were killed in Vietnam before the United States finally withdrew.