The Politics of Cutting and Running

News Abroad

Mr. Mueller is professor of political science at Ohio State University. Among his books are WAR, PRESIDENTS AND PUBLIC OPINION, POLICY AND OPINION IN THE GULF WAR, and the forthcoming THE REMNANTS OF WAR.

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Recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell forcefully declared that the United States would leave Iraq after June 30 if requested to do so by a new interim Iraqi government. This suggests that the United States is now seeking a face-saving method for cutting its loses there--for withdrawing or substantially reducing its presence.

Increasingly the American effort seems to be devolving into a costly, enervating, lonely, and deeply-divisive occupation that the United States would eventually lose. As in Vietnam, the main military problem is to conquer an insurgent force that is tenacious and willing to accept casualties, and the key lies not in American military prowess, but in the willingness of the insurgents to continue their resistance. If this fails to break, it may prove essentially impossible to root them out by military means except by inflicting massive destruction--the Russian approach in Chechnya.

And the only way to keep American casualties from accruing would be to secure the troops in the preventive seclusion of well-protected bases, hardly the best approach for bringing peace, order, and democracy to Iraq. Moreover, if the U.S. can't provide order, ordinary Iraqis will become ever more dismayed at the occupation.

If American forces therefore effectively become more nearly the cause of conflict than its cure, it is entirely sensible to withdraw, passing the burden off to a patched-together domestic government (as in Vietnam), perhaps with some sort of international overseer. The hope would be that this government might be successful in quelling the insurgency not because it would be more militarily effective than the Americans, but because the insurgents would regard it as legitimate and thus stop or reduce their violence.

Withdrawal can be painful, but the process need not be permanently damaging politically. Policing forces that had suffered unacceptable losses were withdrawn from Lebanon in 1984 under Reagan and from Somalia in 1994 under Clinton, and in both cases the issue scarcely came up in ensuing elections.

More to the point may be the resolution of Vietnam. The U.S. plugged on in that war in part because it feared the domestic political consequences of defeat. But failure was substantially accepted at least in electoral politics when a face-saving agreement was crafted and a bit of time passed. Indeed, in 1976, a year after South Vietnam collapsed to Communism, Gerald Ford essentially took credit for it: when he became president, "we were still deeply involved in the problems of Vietnam," he pointed out, but now "we are at peace: not a single young American is fighting or dying on any foreign soil." His electoral challenger, Jimmy Carter, seems to have concluded that it was politically disadvantageous to point out the essential absurdity of Ford's ingenious argument.

With only a few months left until George W. Bush's election, there may not be enough time for Americans to so conveniently wave off the venture. But, while he will presumably continue to lambast the administration for the war, John Kerry is unlikely to advocate sending the troops back no matter how matters develop in the aftermath of withdrawal. Most likely, the public's attention will move on to other things, particularly the economy.

Withdrawal, it is often claimed, means that American prestige and influence will decline. However, it is certainly not clear that the American defeat in Vietnam had a longterm detrimental impact on such vaporous qualities.

A more important consequence might be that Osama bin Laden's theory that the Americans can be defeated, or at least productively inconvenienced, by inflicting comparatively small, but continuously draining, casualties on them will achieve encouraging confirmation. A venture designed and sold in part as a blow against international terrorists would thus end up emboldening and energizing them. A comparison might be made with Israel's orderly, even overdue, withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 that insurgents there took to be a great triumph for their terrorist tactics--and, most importantly, so did like-minded Palestinians who have since escalated their efforts to use terrorism to destroy Israel itself.

However, people like bin Laden are likely to envision victory in Iraq no matter how the venture comes out. They believe that America invaded Iraq as part of its plan to control the oil in the Persian Gulf area. But the United States does not intend to do that (at least not in the direct sense bin Laden and others doubtless consider to be its goal), nor does it seek to destroy Islam as many others also bitterly assert. Thus just about any kind of American withdrawal will be seen by such people as a victory for the harassing terrorist insurgents, who, they will believe, are due primary credit for forcing the United States to leave without accomplishing what they take to be its key objectives.

Another consequence of withdrawal is that all that self-infatuated talk about a brave new superpowered American "empire" will fade away. So there may be a bit of a bright side to the exercise as well.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Add one more to HNN's vast tally of shoddy and overdrawn historical parallels. This website is becoming an copiously laden repository of examples of how to misuse history.

Saddam is not another Ho, Iraqi insurgents are not another Viet Cong, Powell is not another Kissinger, Kerry is not another McGovern, Halliburton contractors are not draftees, etc. etc. Above all else perhaps, LBJ was much more like Nixon than either resemble "W". The vast differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars overwhelm their similarities.

Yes, it is true that both were misguided wars, badly managed, foisted on an inattentive public by a lying American government, and leaving us with an international black eye. But that is about it, and it is high time to declare a moratorium on this silly high school debate at HNN between the Bush ostriches who think we are in another World War II and the brand of kneejerk Bush critic who thinks that this war, and all wars, are carbon copies of Vietnam.

For all its longevity, carnage, folly and resulting colorful protest nostalgia, Vietnam was basically a local affair, geopolitically speaking. A footnote to the Cold War.

Iraq is very different. Osama bin Laden cast the bait, and one of the most internationally ignorant - and perhaps THE most pigheaded - American presidents of all time swallowed it: hook, line and sinker.

No additional American wars came as a result of Vietnam. We can not, and dare not, assume that Bush's colossal blunder, and our failure to confront and reject it in time, will have such limited long term consequences.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Let's just say that with their heads buried in the sand, ostriches remain blissfully unaware when they are being trampled by six foot turkeys with attitude.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Michael Meo,

Welcome to the Buchanan Brigades. Pleased to learn you've the gumption to deny the ambitions of the interventionsts, whether of the Left or of the Right.

America First, mate!

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Regardless the Left's ceaseless self-serving propaganda to justify the draft-dodging of individuals during the war, individuals many of whom today are in academia the Viet-Nam War was not "mis-guided" in the sense we should have avoided fighting it. Rather, as Ernest Lefever points out, our fighting in 'Nam accomplished at least three positive effects for the United States. To wit: 1) "Johnson and Nixon's firmness...reassured our allies around the world an America that would not cut & run in far-off Vietnam would hardly abandon its key allies in Europe and the Pacific...2) our steadfastness in Vietnam strenghtened nationalist and anticommunist forces elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific...holding the line as we did eventually led to a balance of power favorable to the states in the region and to us..."

The claim that Viet-Nam was an unnecessary war is most frequently voiced by moral and physical cowards who during the war avoided military sevice during the war. I've seen the blabber of many a coward here on HNN

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005


You've a valid point. It is supported by that famous to some of us exchange between Colonel Harry Summers and a PAVN colonel after the war. Colonel Summers said, more or less, "You know, we won every major engagement." The PAVN said in response,more or less, "So what? You still lost the war, no?"

Even so, I still hate our having abandoned the South Viets to the horrors of Communist conquest. Worse, we abandoned them for no more high-flautin reason than the Democrats saw abandoning the South Viets as a means to get Nixon. They cared not how many people were tortured and murdered as long as they cxould force Nixon out-of-office.

Jerry West - 5/29/2004


Our involvelment in Vietnam accomplished almost sixty thousand dead GIs and proved to our allies that we were not very astute by burning our lives and resources in an area where we had little at stake other than our political paranoia about dominoes and such.

There is a big difference between upholding the remnants of a colonial regime in the face of a national war for independence and in defending Europe. Not getting bogged down in Vietnam could have been just as easy if not easier to explain than what we did.

I spent 19 months with ground forces there, all volunteer. (unlike a whole bunch of pro war people in in high places in DC that I know who either hid out in the National Guard or ducked service altogether) It is my first hand opinion that it was a stupid mistake (the more charitable view).

One may not agree with me, but that does not make those who hold similar views to mine self serving or cowards anymore than it makes those who hold the opposite view baby killers.

Jerry West - 5/29/2004


For reports that I have read in recent studies we lost another 30,000 GIs in Vietnam to get Nixon elected. The North was ready to sign a peace agreement in 1968 but Kissinger talked the South out of it, promising a better deal when Nixon was president. Nixon probably would not have been president had Johnson gotten a peace agreement and the war been then relegated to a non-issue.

Even before that, however, if we really want to start pointing fingers at who or what is to blame for the horrors of Vietnam we should go back at least to the end of WWII when we betrayed our ally Ho Chi Minh and let the French back into the country.

A lot of the so called horrors of communism in the last century have as many roots in the West's response to nationalist, communists revolutions as in the communist governments themselves. Brutality and repression is not unique to communist regimes, many non-communist ones are just as bad and our own government has had a hand in aiding and abetting terror and repression when it has served its need. Not a need the necessarily benefits us as a people either, but does serve the interests of those in power.

I often wonder how different the world would be if instead of invading the Soviet Union in 1919 and carrying on six years of war against the Russian regime, we would have just recognized them and only involved ourselves by providig humanitarian and economic aid. Perhaps we would have never had a Stalin.

The cold war really started at the end of WWI. Its roots lie in preserving and protecting colonialism and keeping the poor in their place.

mark safranski - 5/28/2004

"The people of the Middle East have been fighting wars since biblical times. They know and have adapted to the environment. There is no way the United States of America can beat those people in their own backyard"

So the Arabs have evolved into unstoppable desert warriors ? How do the Israelis figure into this Darwinian theory ?


Jerry West - 5/27/2004

I think that withdrawal is a more accurate description of the US ending in RVN than rout. We lost the war, yes, but we could have stayed and kept fighting for who knows how long, another 30 or 40 years? We did win the battles, though, but the NVA were prepared to endure forever if need be, despite what some people fantasize about a missed US victory.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/27/2004

The French forces in Indo-China lost the war in May 1954, admitted to its humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu and chose the sensible way out of its plight. When one reads of US forces being defeated in Vietnam in April 1975, it is usually called a withdrawal. Why So? Why is that that the USis unable to face reality and admit that was routed by the Viet Minh and the Viet Congi forces? Is there ever going to be time when the US ever going to admit to defeats? Sugar coating never helped anyone, including the USA, so please get back to reality and face up to your defeats. That is the only way out.

Remember, even in Iraq you have not won the war, and every day in that country lives of Americans is being lost on a gamble by the Bush regime.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/27/2004

"If we are digging for analogies perhaps we might look at Japan's invasion of China in the 30s."

You can decide next week how you feel about that one, as I've written just such an analysis.

Charles McCant - 5/26/2004

How can you win a fight against an opponents that has nothing to lose?

The people of the Middle East have been fighting wars since biblical times. They know and have adapted to the environment. There is no way the United States of America can beat those people in their own backyard.

Yes, we have the most superior military in the world. Our military can successfully fight on ten different fronts at any given time. The problem in the Middle East is those people are not going fight a superior military according to tradition. They are going to use any tactics at their disposal to kill America’s will to fight. To date, they are winning.

It is time to cut our losses and run. Forget about how it makes America looks. It is better to run than to stay and get slaughtered.

Remember, those people have nothing to lose.

Jerry West - 5/26/2004

Peter Clarke has a pretty good reading on this war. Vietnam it is not. An ambush it certainly appears to be. The question may be who bagged us, Osama, Iran, .... the administration's incompetence or hubris, or all of them?

Fanatics would be well advised to stop viewing US military adventures in the light of WWII. We are not that US anymore nor are our motives the same as in that conflict. If we are digging for analogies perhaps we might look at Japan's invasion of China in the 30s.

James Thorton wrote:

Regardless of whether one supported the war or not prior to the invasion it is paramount that now that we are in it we win it.

My question is what does victory look like in this case? No matter what the final outcome if it takes several thousand more dead US service personnel and billions up on billions of dollars that could be used at home for healthcare and education and such, is it victory? King Pyrrhus comes to mind here.

Perhaps we should be examining the economics of this war, who is benefitting, who is paying and what influence each has on the policy making process that drives the war.

Andrew D. Todd - 5/26/2004

Well, not to repeat myself:


James E. Thornton - 5/26/2004

Regardless of whether one supported the war or not prior to the invasion it is paramount that now that we are in it we win it. Claiming victory and withdrawing now would be a catastrophic mistake. The government of Iraq most likely would be weak and unstable. The Jihadis are salavating at a chance to have new nation in which they can set up their camps, and this time they would have the world's second largest proven oil reserves to boot. Building up a strong Iraqi military and turning it over to a general who will not work against our intrests is the winning exit strategy from Iraq.

Andrew D. Todd - 5/26/2004

A (literal) ostrich has been described as "a six foot turkey with 'attitude.'" Does it apply to the metaphorical ostrich?

Andrew D. Todd - 5/25/2004

Anthony Zinni is not yet as militant as Smedley Butler, but he's getting there.




Michael Meo - 5/24/2004

I certainly hope that the sentiment of the very last sentence is a correct harbinger of the future.

But I thought that in 1975, too, I am afraid.