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Sunday
May132007

Iraq is no Vietnam, except to the Boomers

I'm not shy about criticizing President George W. Bush's foreign policy, but all this talk about Iraq being America's worst foreign policy disaster ever is pure hyperbole. Portraying Iraq as another Vietnam is a tough sell, but it's one our Boomer leaders can't help but make, since they are sad products of their upbringing.

Because America faces no superpower rival today, it's hard to see how our current difficulties in Iraq, no matter how we exit or stay, portend an irreversible loss of respect for U.S. military power globally.

All we've proven is that: (1) America alone can't stabilize - much less rebuild - a country of Iraq's size following regime change, and (2) providing more than 90 percent of the postwar ground forces inevitably cripples our military.

But think back a mere decade to America's successful participation in the dismantling of Yugoslavia, to include positive regime change in malevolent Serbia.

There we waged war and then peace in a near-casualty-free environment, leaving both Bosnia and Kosovo more stable and internationally connected than we found them.

The difference? President Bill Clinton took the time to build a significant international coalition, allowing the U.S. to lead in war but largely follow in the peace, providing less than 10 percent of the peacekeeping force left behind.

Now, NATO actually sends into former Yugoslavia fewer peacekeeping troops than the surviving countries provide NATO in post-conflict situations elsewhere, making these states de facto security exporters.

Imagine how long it will take before we see Iraqi peacekeepers serving alongside Americans outside of the Persian Gulf.

So, sure, Iraq may define the floor of our capabilities for post-conflict reconstruction and stability operations, but it hardly sets the ceiling.

Another reason why the Vietnam comparison doesn't work is that neither our losses nor our continuing military burden in Southwest Asia come anywhere close to our national sacrifice in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

To match our casualties in Vietnam, we'd need to continue our current effort in Iraq for several decades. Likewise, to match our per capita service burden, we'd have to quadruple our military. In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, approximately one out of 200 Americans was in uniform, serving abroad. Today, that burden's dropped to approximately one out of 800 Americans.

As for precipitous withdrawal, Americans are less interested in pulling out of Iraq than they are in reducing casualties, which most view as prohibitively high given our lack of progress to date. Get casualties down, and Americans are no more likely to demand "cut and run" from Iraq than they are from South Korea.

As Kurdistan has enjoyed significant peace and growing prosperity since Saddam's fall, it seems natural to shift the bulk of our in-country presence there.

Doing so would provide us a safe haven from which to conduct whatever stabilization and counter-terrorist operations still make sense amid the rising sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiia, a fight we cannot stop without becoming the central target for fighters on both sides.

As for any U.S. pullback from combat signaling al-Qaida's "victory," that argument's been overtaken by events. Defeating the Sunni-based insurgency, to which al-Qaida elements contribute, is no longer the long pole in Iraq's tent. Instead, the Sunni-Shiia conflict dominates.

Want to test Tehran's and Riyadh's support to their co-religionists? Then backing out of this clash either calls the bluffs, getting them to the peace negotiations pronto, or speeds the killing that was slated to happen all along. Either way, better to take our troops out of harm's way and live to intervene another day.

Since all front-running presidential candidates profess commitment to the region's stability, the question isn't about reducing America's military presence there, but rather: How should it be used and where should it be deployed?

Remember, the U.S. didn't withdraw from Asia after Vietnam, we simply re-concentrated our presence in those venues that made the most sense, especially our historic role as off-shore regional balancer.

Now, as we watch Vietnam turn increasingly capitalistic in response to rising China's embrace of markets, a reverse domino effect ensues, reminding us that success in long wars, such as the one we now wage against radical Islamic extremism, logically unfolds over decades and not within one president's rule.

Remember that the next time Chicken Little tells you the sky is falling.

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