Avoiding the Iraq Hangover

After Saigon fell to a North Vietnamese onslaught on April 29, 1975, Americans experienced a “Vietnam hangover” lasting until the electorate emerged from its grogginess to elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. If you have ever gotten “knee-crawlin’, commode-huggin’ drunk,” you know about hangovers. From a pain-wracked frame that used to be your head, your blood-shot eyes viewed the world through a thick cottony haze of blurred perceptions.

From 1975 through 1980, American foreign policy resembled a person suffering through a hangover. Like most drunks at dawn on the morning after, the nation went through a period of remorse, swearing off “the dog that bit them.” Then there was reduced activity. In the collective national sense, it was our uncertain foreign policy that did things like bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran to provide Iran with “spiritual leadership.” Cutbacks in the military to avoid any future Vietnam-like commitments reflected the same kind of hung-over reasoning that lead drunks to opt for vodka over bourbon to avoid future hangovers. Survivors learn from their mistakes and never repeat them.

In the late spring of 1940, newly-installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied his nation following the evacuation of 112,000 British and 226,000 French and Belgian troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Churchill knew that although wars are not won with retreats, temporary setbacks need not spell disaster. Conversely, Adolf Hitler faced military reversals with demands of “No retreat!” Hitler’s denial of political and military realities needlessly squandered lives and turned lost battles, the military effects of which might have been overcome, into a lost war.

If the current surge in forces in Iraq fails—and it probably will—it is imperative that the United States avoid the pending hangover, the consequences of which will be far greater than anything suffered after Vietnam. Unfortunately, symptoms are already present. The continuing domestic political haggling over Iraq is one indicator. The overwhelming Democratic victory in last November’s elections reflects the loss of public support for sustaining the U.S. commitment in Iraq. The recent political squabble over supplemental funding for American military operations in Iraq means U.S. forces are pulling out, probably sooner rather than later. Members of both parties are talking benchmarks, timetables and setting high standards to justify future funding. Like it or not, right or wrong, that’s the reality. Four things can be done to avoid an Iraqi hangover, or at least minimize its consequences.

First, President George W. Bush must assert strategic, political leadership and steal a page from Churchill. Bush must level with the American people concerning both the seriousness of the situation and the importance of moving positively in the aftermath of what can no longer be spun as anything but a major defeat for administration policies in Iraq.

Second, the United States must not completely forsake Iraq, abandoning it to the chaos likely to erupt after American forces pullout. The best bet is redeployment to the north into Kurd-controlled territory to prevent chaos from spreading into relatively stable Kurdistan and to deter Turkish forces from invading to keep Kurds from instigating unrest in southern Turkey. A residual American military presence in Kuwait, U.S. Naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Air Force squadrons stationed in various Gulf States can prevent sectarian violence in southern Iraq from spreading to the Arabian Peninsula and make it less likely that Iran and Saudi Arabia might intervene militarily to support warring Iraqi Shiite and Sunni factions.

Third, a continuous robust naval presence will be needed to keep the global supply of oil flowing from the Persian Gulf and to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the power vacuum in Iraq that will develop after a U.S. pullout. The Bush administration also might rebuild some lost international cache by inviting European and Asian allies to contribute additional naval forces. Access to oil is, after all, a global concern.

Fourth, dispatch some of the U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq to Afghanistan where insurgent activity has increased sharply since January. Jihadists drawn from around the world to fight U.S. troops in Iraq, bolstered by perceptions of victory, will head to Afghanistan. Without reinforcement, U.S. failure in Iraq may be compounded by defeat on the Afghan front.

If a major foreign policy debacle looms in Iraq, facing reality and planning to limit the effects simply makes good strategic sense. In war, withdrawals are neither unusual nor always fatal. If Iraq is viewed as a theater in the global struggle against Islamist Jihadists rather than the focal point, then a successful withdrawal may be vital for continuing the war to a victorious conclusion on the international stage. Make no mistake: This is a global, total war, the results of which will determine the kind of world our grandchildren inherit.