Monday, December 8, 2008

Deciding To Win

Brian Robertson, a thoughtful young scholar, examines the parallels between 1968, when Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam, and 2008, when Barack Obama inherited Iraq. President Nixon’s fateful decision was to stay engaged in Vietnam rather than blaming it on the war’s Democratic architects and withdrawing. By the same token Robertson warns that Bush’s war could soon become Obama’s:

If U.S. efforts cannot sustain or support the regime after disengagement, Obama may choose the path that merely continues the violence and produces another decent interval.
The option Robertson doeesn’t flesh out is what might happen if the U.S. continues active, creative non-combat troop support for Iraq after our forces withdraw. We didn’t in 1973-75. We became distracted by Watergate and decided to let South Vietnam go down the tubes by slashing our aid budget to the bone.

Like most Vietnam scholars, Robertson virtually ignores the endgame. What if the United States had kept its promises to Saigon? Might it have survived? Even though Rick Perlstein calls its forces a “joke,” it’s beyond dispute that they fought well after U.S. troops were gone. Still, it’s an impossible question to answer for sure. What’s odd is how seldom scholars and journalists ask it at all.

As for the coming Iraq endgame, Robertson’s choice of words is intriguing. “Cannot sustain” the Iraq regime suggests the possibility that no amount of non-personnel aid would help a decrepit Baghdad. “Cannot…support” suggests something different: The possibility that the United States might choose not to continue to support the regime on whose behalf over 4,000 Americans have given their lives. In 1973-75, the U.S. Congress, often echoing the rhetoric of the antiwar movement, made the conscious decision to systematically abandon an ally. Whether that was the right decision depends on your perspective. But what the world — our allies, certainly, and even our theorists inside the Pentagon – may have learned from Vietnam is not that America couldn’t win, but that America was capable of deciding not to. What will the PE and the Congress decide in the next two years?

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