As the last American troops roll south to Kuwait, the end of the war in Iraq invites unsettling comparisons to another war America declared over before losing its nerve and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Then as now, Democrats have taken the lead in putting at risk the gains purchased with a trillion dollars, and nearly 4,500 dead and tens of thousands wounded American soldiers.
For all of the obvious differences between the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq, the effects of an overhasty withdrawal on American prestige promise to be similar. The period following the fall of Saigon in 1975 was one of Soviet expansionist aggression in Latin America and Africa, even as Democratic president Jimmy Carter scolded Americans for their “inordinate fear of communism.” Carter embodied the spirit of national self-loathing and guilty retreat––the “crisis in confidence” as he called it ––seemingly validated by the failure in Vietnam. In his inaugural speech he confessed the nation’s “recent mistakes,” advised us “even our great nation has its recognized limits,” and warned that America can “simply do its best.” This public pusillanimity was also noticed by the clerics in Iran, who began their modern jihad with the overthrow of the Shah, America’s ally abandoned by an administration devoted to “human rights” and disarmament, and addled by specious anti-colonial rhetoric. The mullahs confirmed their contempt for us by sacking our embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
The audacity and success of this assault inspired the other jihadist groups––many trained and funded by Iran––that began attacking more boldly American and Western interests across the globe. The geopolitical lesson of American weakness was also noticed by a Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who preached to his trainees the cultural bankruptcy of America that Vietnam illustrated and that made America vulnerable to Allah’s warriors. “The Americans did not get out of Vietnam,” bin Laden preached, “until after they suffered great losses. Over sixty thousand [sic] American soldiers were killed until there were demonstrations by the American people. [The Americans] won’t stop until we do jihad against them.” After 9/11, bin Laden demanded “the American people to take note of their government’s policy against Muslims. They described the government’s policy against Vietnam as wrong. They should now take the same stand they did previously.” America is a “weak horse,” as bin Laden famously said, noting American retreat from Vietnam, Iran, and Mogadishu, and our failure to retaliate for the other terrorist attacks that culminated in the carnage of 9/11.
Those who quibble with bin Laden’s historical accuracy about these events are missing the point. The perception of American weakness he articulated became a motivator of action, and the same perception is now arising following the withdrawal from Iraq. There is no question that this politically rather than strategically motivated retreat puts at risk whatever gains have been made over the past eight and a half years. A politically fragmented Iraq is faced with myriad problems and dysfunctions. It is ruled by a Shia clique that in the absence of American power is unlikely to respect the autonomy and rights of Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis. Sectarian violence is already accelerating. Al Qaeda and other violent terrorist outfits are still active, and will no doubt step up their attacks on sectarian enemies, foreign workers, and oil facilities. Shia Islamists like Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mumahidoon party, virulently anti-American and backed by Iran, are likely to become a more powerful force in Iraq after the Americans are gone, either dominating the government or forming a Hezbollah-like autonomous state-within-a-state. Not encouraging are the billboards that have sprung up in Baghdad showing al-Sadr trampling a U.S. flag.
Moreover, the government is incapable of meeting these threats given what Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, calls “security gaps,” including “their air sovereignty, their air defense capability, the ability to protect the two oil platforms, and then the ability to do combined arms operations for an external defense, synchronizing their infantry with their armor, with their artillery, with their engineers.” Given these security weaknesses, increasing sectarian and terrorist violence abetted by Iranian support and meddling will create the conditions for any number of outcomes inimical to American interests, whether state collapse, a Syria-like grinding civil war, a nakedly Islamist government, another Saddam Hussein, or increased sanctuaries for jihadist organizations.
Whatever the outcome, the big winner will be Iran, whose regional influence will increase in the vacuum created by America’s retreat, just as the Soviet Union was emboldened in its geopolitical rampage by our withdrawal from Indochina. Iran’s leadership is already trumpeting the withdrawal as a sign of American “failure” in Iraq, a “good omen for the Islamic ummah, especially for revolutionary nations,” as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put it, but a “day of humiliation” for America, according to the Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi made the implications more explicit: “The American soldiers had no other choice than to leave Iraq, and this is the beginning of all American forces withdrawing from the region and the people’s intolerance of these ambassadors of death, colonialism, and plundering.” Of course, the nation that will benefit the most from this “failure” and “humiliation” will be Iran, with its deep ties to Iraq’s Shia population and its record of strong support for the jihadist groups destabilizing the region.
Just as Jimmy Carter embodied the delusional idealism and failure of nerve that weakened America after 1975, so too Barack Obama has damaged American prestige and invited further aggression with his rush to leave Iraq and his failure to negotiate vigorously for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. Of course political self-interest played a big role in this act of appeasement. Obama campaigned on the promise that he would end the “dumb” war in Iraq, calling the surge in troops a “reckless escalation.” Given his serial failures to keep his other campaign promises like shutting down Guantanamo and ending military tribunals, Obama saw an opportunity in American war-weariness to keep at least this one promise, and he wasn’t going to let any difficulties in negotiating America’s post-withdrawal presence in Iraq get in his way.
But accompanying these political interests was Obama’s ideology of American guilt and inevitable decline, and the disbelief in American “exceptionalism,” to be replaced by a vision in which America is merely a global “partner mindful of his own imperfections,” as candidate Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs. Yet the rest of the world sees these pronouncements for what they really are––as signs of American retreat and weakness sure to invite further aggression. And we know what the most likely source of this aggression will be: an emboldened, oil-rich Iran, already killing our citizens and supporting our enemies, and increasingly likely soon to be in possession of nuclear weapons.
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