Iraq is not Vietnam. There are certainly analogies: the length and unpopularity of the wars; the late escalation and increase in forces; the counterinsurgency success that came after public support for the effort seemed already exhausted; the decision to abandon the effort and thus snatch failure from the jaws of possible victory; and the arguments about the irrelevance of the conflicts to the core interests of an America riven with internal strife and economic troubles.
But for all that, Iraq is not Vietnam. Because, unlike Vietnam, Iraq is at the center of two of the most pressing national security challenges facing America today—the growth of Iranian power and the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. The United States left Vietnam, and some but not all of the dominoes in the region did fall, but Southeast Asia per se became ancillary to American national security after 1975 and has remained so to this day. The symbolism of U.S. defeat and retreat from South Vietnam was extremely important, to be sure, and continues to shape both American and international narratives of U.S. power and self-definition. But the facts on the ground there ceased to matter much to the United States after Saigon finally fell. In contrast, the Iranian offensive to overrun what the American counterinsurgency accomplished will look very different from the 1975 conventional offensive in Vietnam, and it has begun instantly, without even a decent interval. As a symbol, America’s withdrawal from Iraq will likely be similarly significant, but the facts on the ground in Iraq will continue to be centrally important to American national security for the foreseeable future. The United States can leave Iraq alone, but Iraq will not leave us alone.
of U.S. Middle East strategy
Two dramatic challenges to the security of the American homeland spring from the area around Mesopotamia—the threat of attack by terrorist groups, and the prospect of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The recently revealed Quds Force plot to use Mexican drug cartels to conduct bombings on American soil demonstrates that the danger of terrorism emanating from the Middle East is cross-sectarian: Al Qaeda, primarily Sunni, is still in business, despite the administration’s premature claims of success, while Iranian agencies (like the Quds Force) and proxies, primarily Shiite, are becoming more potent and immediate threats to the American homeland.
The U.S. abandonment of Iraq will almost certainly increase the sectarian violence that drove Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to welcome the support of Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters. The seeds of renewed sectarian conflict are already being sown, both by the efforts of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to build his Dawa party into something like a Shiite Baath party, and by indications that Sunni Arab leaders are rapidly losing faith that their participation in Iraq’s government can benefit or even protect their communities. The renewal of sectarian conflict will push both sides back toward the extremes, opening the way for Al Qaeda in Iraq to reestablish itself and for Iranian proxy groups to dig themselves even deeper into Iraq. This time there will be no American forces to resist these developments.
U.S. strategy for preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, moreover, has relied almost entirely on economic sanctions. The Iran-Iraq border runs for more than 900 miles. Saddam Hussein was more than content to participate, informally and indirectly, in sanctions against Iran, a neighbor he had invaded in 1980 and fought until 1988. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, embroiling himself in a 13-year conflict with the United States and its allies that imposed even harsher sanctions on Iraq than had been imposed on Iran. But since 2003, the presence in Iraq of more than 100,000 American troops—not to mention some of the most ruthless and vicious urban fighting and road-mining the world has seen in decades—prevented Iraq from being used as a major portal through which Iran could circumvent sanctions. Now, all of those conditions have vanished, and Iraqis have already made it clear that they do not feel bound by our sanctions against Iran. Any strategy that relies on the economic isolation of Iran, then, has just been thoroughly vitiated for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power (and American hostages) in 1979. Our defeat in Iraq will require a fundamental reevaluation of America’s strategy toward Iran.
American national security strategy on a central front in two conflicts is now a smoking ruin. It may be some time before the full weight of this defeat is apparent in newspapers or on television. Its effects will be felt increasingly, however, as America’s leaders grapple with a rising and nuclearizing Iran and the reemergence of al Qaeda franchises in the Arab world.