IRAQ: Iraq vs. Vietnam
Ted Galen Carpenter

As US forces in Iraq reel from a rapidly expanding insurgency, Americans are beginning to ask whether they have stumbled into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Such comparisons, however, require caution.

Warnings of ‘another Vietnam’ plagued US interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In each case, such warnings were – at the very least – overblown.

But this time the critics appear to be right. The breadth of the insurgency, the difficulty the United States is encountering in pacifying the country, the inability to tell friend from foe, and the weakness and unreliability of pro-American indigenous factions are eerily reminiscent of Vietnam. America seems to be in a fight that it cannot win – at least not at any reasonable cost in terms of blood and treasure.

US leaders now face a choice similar to the one confronting Lyndon Johnson’s administration in 1964, when it became evident that a limited US military commitment was insufficient to defeat the communist forces in South Vietnam. Administration leaders faced a stark choice: Withdraw American forces, even though Washington’s credibility throughout the world might be damaged, or escalate by sending in more troops. The Johnson administration ignored the advice of realist foreign policy experts such as Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann and chose to escalate, thus transforming a foreign policy setback into a debacle.

The choice in Iraq is much the same. Voices advocating escalation can be heard already, including Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman. In a narrow sense, their analysis is correct: The United States does not currently have enough troops in Iraq to control a deteriorating situation.

But escalation would be as unwise and futile as it was in Vietnam. A growing number of Iraqis – even those originally happy to see Saddam Hussein ousted – now view the United States as an alien, occupying power. The willingness of Shias and Sunnis to bury their long-standing rivalry and cooperate in the latest insurgent attacks is an especially ominous sign. Even worse, the occupation of Iraq has become a provocation to much of the Muslim world. We have overstayed our welcome in Iraq. Sending in more troops may dampen the current round of fighting, but it will not overcome those problems.

Admittedly, a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq is not without its drawbacks. America’s credibility will take a hit, and radical Islamist forces will interpret the result as a victory. Full-blown civil war in Iraq would also be a distinct possibility.

Advocates of staying the course blithely argue that we cannot “cut and run.” But a principle from the world of investing applies to wise and prudent foreign policy. Smart investors know that it is better to cut losses early rather than stubbornly hold on to an investment that has gone sour – much less pour more resources into such an investment.

The US mission in Iraq is an investment that clearly has gone sour. We should cut our losses now, while they are relatively modest. If we do not, we will likely be compelled to terminate the mission later under even less favorable circumstances – and after losing tens of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives in a futile venture. A smart superpower should not make such a blunder.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice-president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.