Saving Face and How to Say Farewell

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Most of the recent parallels to our withdrawing from Iraq do not seem to offer much encouragement for a confounded superpower that wants to save face as it cuts its losses and returns home. Among them are the wrenching French pullout from Algeria, the ill-fated French and American adventures in Vietnam, the Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan and the disastrous American interventions in Beirut and Somalia.

Still, there are a few stories of inconclusive wars that left the United States in a more dignified position, including the continuing American presence in South Korea and the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. But even those stand in stark contrast to the happier legacy of total victory during World War II.

Alongside the dampening of hopes, there has also been a fair amount of historical revisionism regarding the darker tales of conflicts past: a considered sense that if the superpowers had made different decisions, things could have turned out more palatably, and that they still might in Iraq.

Maybe not surprisingly, Vietnam is the focus of some of the most interesting revisionism, including some of it immediately relevant to Iraq, where the intensive effort to train Iraqi security forces to defend their own country closely mirrors the "Vietnamization" program in South Vietnam. If Congress had not voted to kill the financing for South Vietnam and its armed forces in 1975, argues Melvin R. Laird in a heavily read article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Saigon might never have fallen.

"Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975," wrote Mr. Laird, who was President Nixon's defense secretary from 1969 to 1973, when the United States pulled its hundreds of thousands of troops out of Vietnam.

In an interview, Mr. Laird conceded that the American departure from Vietnam was not a pretty sight. "Hell, the pictures of them getting in those helicopters were not good pictures," he said, referring to the chaotic evacuation of the American embassy two years after Vietnamization was complete, and a year after Nixon resigned. But on the basis of his what-if about Vietnam, Mr. Laird does not believe that all is lost in Iraq.

"There is a dignified way out, and I think that's the Iraqization of the forces over there," Mr. Laird said, "and I think we're on the right track on that."

Many analysts have disputed the core of that contention, saying that large swaths of the Iraqi security forces are so inept they may never be capable of defending their country against the insurgents without the American military backing them up. But Mr. Laird is not alone in his revisionist take and its potential application to Iraq.

William Stueck, a history professor at the University of Georgia who has written several books on Korea, calls himself a liberal but says he buys Mr. Laird's basic analysis of what went wrong with Vietnamization.

Korea reveals how easy it is to dismiss the effectiveness of local security forces prematurely, Mr. Stueck said. In 1951, Gen. Matthew Ridgeway felt deep frustration when Chinese offensives broke through parts of the line defended by poorly led South Korean troops.

But by the summer of 1952, with intensive training, the South Koreans were fighting more effectively, Mr. Stueck said. "Now, they needed backup" by Americans, he said. By 1972, he said, South Korean troops were responsible for 70 percent of the front line.

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