Saturday, November 19, 2005

Is The US Home Front Collapsing?

Will this be remembered as the week when President Bush started to lose control over the Iraq war debate in the United States?

The signs are certainly there. It's not only that the Democrats are stepping up the attack, but the vote in the Senate last Tuesday clearly showed an increasing amount of nervousness in the Republican ranks.

Looking at how the US domestic scene is developing, the Bush administration has perhaps six months to get things right in Iraq. If the situation there fails to improve significantly, making some orderly troop withdrawals possible, political pressure for a more disorderly and larger withdrawal might well become irresistible.

Next year there are mid-terms elections in the fall, and then starts the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections.

There are clearly parallels to what happen in Vietnam some decades ago when it was the home front that collapsed first. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Melvin Laird has written an essay on that situation which has rapidly become mandatory reading for anyone wanting to be serious in this debate.

Laird was President Nixon's Secretary of Defence 1969 - 1973 and had the task of getting the United States out of the mess in Southeast Asia. In the article, he claims that the policy of handing over to the South Vietnamese was an overall success. Had only the US beeen able to back up the South Vietnamese army when the large North Vietnamese army assualt came in April 1975 things would have been different.

Perhaps. But the problem in Vietnam wasn't purely a military one. At the end of the day it was the failure to build up a sufficiently broad-based and credible regime in South Vietnam that doomed the war to failure. When the large North Vietnamese attack came, it wasn't only the absence of US support, but also the weakness in Saigon, that caused the morale and the fighting strength of the South Vietnamese forces to disappear.

Where Mr Laird is undoubtedly correct is in pointing out the consequences of a cut-and-run strategy, reminding us of what happened in Vietnam:

"In Vietnam, the voices of the 'cut-and-run' crowd ultimately prevailed, and our allies were betrayed after all of our work to set them on their feet. Those same voices would now have us cut and run from Iraq, assuring the failure of the fledgling democracy there and damning the rest of the Islamic world to chaos fomented by extremists."

"Those who look only at the rosy side of what defeat did to help South Vietnam get to where it is today see a growing economy there and a warming of relations with the West. They forget the immediate costs of the United States' betrayal. Two million refugees were driven out of the country, 65,000 more were executed, and 250,000 were sent to 'reeducation camps'."

"Given the nature of the insurgents in Iraq and the catastrophic goals of militant Islam, we can expect no better there."

In all probability it would be worse. If Iraq were to descend into a civil war the consequences would not be limited to Iraq itself, but would affect this entire volatile region.

Much is at stake in the US domestic debate over Iraq. Even Europeans who were critical of the US invasion of the country are now apprehensive as to the consequences of a collapse of US will to carry through what it has set out to do.

Then we might end up in the worst of all possible worlds. And Europe is far closer to the consequences than is the United States.

Foreign Affairs - Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam - Melvin R. Laird