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Would Defeat in Iraq Be So Bad?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
October 15, 2006
Time Magazine

To me, the relentless mud slide of insurgency and civil war in Iraq is leading to unacceptable strategic disaster for the U.S. There appear to be no viable paths to follow in order to avoid it. Neither “staying the course”—whatever that Bush strategy now means—nor the Democrats’ idea of exiting by timetables offers a semblance of success. Both approaches produce only nightmares: general chaos; Iraq’s center taken over by terrorists emboldened by victory over America, their pockets bulging with Iraqi oil money; southern Iraq controlled by pro-Iranians or Iran itself; and Iraq’s neighbors picking at the nation’s carcass until regional war erupts and prompts oil prices to hit $150 a barrel.

But while those fears have a real hold on me, I can’t help transporting myself back more than 30 years to that day in Vietnam when I felt certain the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and destroy America’s strategic position there and elsewhere. I was wrong about those dominoes, as were almost all foreign-policy experts.

It was April 28, 1975. The last U.S. officials scrambled aboard helicopters, bound for home, heralding defeat as North Vietnamese troops tramped into the South Vietnamese capital. And it was the most ignominious kind of defeat, one that came after a decades-long war, after tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese had been killed, after our Presidents had pledged it would never come to that.

We expected China and the Soviet Union would be ascendant, that allies like Japan and South Korea would doubt our resolve and reposition themselves, and that North Vietnam would claim the rest of Indochina. Almost none of that happened.

Three years later, the standing and power of the U.S. in Asia were greater than at any other time since the end of World War II. Our friends and allies in the region were worried about communist ascendancy, as we were, and they all rallied behind us. They understood clearly that their security depended on our presence and power in Asia. And so the dominoes never fell.

Could the consequences of defeat in Iraq not be as bad as we imagine? In the first place, the Arab jihadi terrorists will be more difficult to handle than the North Vietnamese. Hanoi’s leaders ran a disciplined country with ambitions limited to Indochina. The jihadi terrorists in Iraq can’t be bargained with, and their hatred runs global. Victory in Iraq would embolden them.

But we are not without ways to check their victory, even as we might exit Iraq. We have allies at the ready (the Kurds, the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, etc.) who fear the jihadis as much as we do and potential allies (the Baathists and the Sunni tribal leaders) who want to rule their own piece of Iraq and also fear and despise the jihadis. As we gradually withdraw, we and others could provide Baathists the wherewithal to crush the terrorists. Without a large U.S. military presence, they probably would do a better job of it.

As for Iran’s hold on southern Iraq, the risk looms large. But we easily forget that Iraqi Shi’ites are Arabs, not Persians. They have their own pride, traditions and interests. We should stand ready to help these Shi’ites as well.

All logic could prove illusory if Iraq’s neighbors plunge the region into war. But they, including Iran, desire to avoid the abyss that engulfs their oil production (their only source of funds) and subjects them to internal rebellions. Washington has the diplomatic power to help shape this concern, starting now and including Iran.

To be sure, Arabs don’t succumb readily to being herded in one direction, even where common interests dictate. All could bolt for the door, appease the terrorists and just raise oil prices. But we don't know until we try hard.

And we had better try—and soon. Although the last thing Americans want is a defeat in Iraq, events may be sliding in that direction and we need to shrink the fallout. The nightmare scenario could begin now, or in the next two years as troops are withdrawn, or thereafter, abruptly or slowly. To speak of defeat is not to advocate it but to prepare to minimize it.

While the Ford and Carter administrations worked hard to cushion the falling dominoes, the Asian dominoes moved quickly to save themselves by buttressing our power. We can’t expect to be as lucky with the denizens of the gulf region. And we certainly wouldn’t make our luck by staying the course and hiding behind Bush’s fears of Middle East dominoes. We need him to unstrap America’s still muscular diplomacy to seed the antiterrorist soil within Iraq, to structure a regional peace among states that cringe from regional war, to blunt the disasters of chaos and defeat—and perhaps even to snatch successes beforehand.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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