The Precedents for Withdrawal: From Vietnam to Iraq

Bennett Ramberg. Foreign Affairs. Volume 88, Issue 2. March/April 2009.

In November 2008, the governments of the United States and Iraq agreed that U.S. troops would leave Iraq by 2011-eight years after the U.S. invasion. For some, this is much too soon. These critics argue that events on the ground, not an artificial deadline, should govern the pullout and that, in any case, a residual force should remain for decades.

But as Washington ponders how long to stay in Iraq, it would do well to examine the strategic impact of the United States’ withdrawal from other conflict-riven countries: Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, and Somalia in the 1990s. Even though Washington’s commitment to these situations differed in its degree, disengagement eventually proved to be the right policy for the United States. Abandonment damaged Washington’s credibility at first, but it was the best way to protect U.S. interests in the long run. The dominoes did not fall after the United States left Southeast Asia; Moscow did not fill the power vacuum in Lebanon; Washington has been largely unaffected by the failed state of Somalia. In each case, after the United States exited, its adversaries became preoccupied with consolidating power and embroiled themselves in conflicts with neighboring countries. A regional stability of sorts emerged, leaving Washington’s vital interests intact. For the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia, U.S. withdrawal may have been a mixed blessing. But from the United States’ perspective, the costs of withdrawal were less than those of staying and lower than what had been feared.

Extensive, long-term nation building paid off in Germany and Japan after 1945. But Iraq is different. Divided and unstable, it has more in common with Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia. It is those who make the case for staying in Iraq who bear the burden of proving why history would unfold differently this time.

Intervening In Indochina

It was the ghosts of Munich, Yalta, and Beijing’s fall to Mao that lured the United States into Vietnam’s jungles in the 1960s. “If we ran out on Southeast Asia, I could see trouble ahead in every part of the globe-not just in Asia but in the Middle East and in Europe, in Africa and in Latin America,” President Lyndon Johnson later wrote in his memoirs. Clark Clifford, a Johnson confidant who would later become secretary of defense, warned at the time that the situation would turn into a “quagmire … without a realistic hope of ultimate victory~” Fifty thousand U.S. soldiers could die. But Johnson would not flinch: “I was convinced that our retreat from this challenge would open the path to World War III.” In 1965, he decided to commit 50,000 more troops, bringing the total number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam to 125,000. By the end of Johnson’s tenure, three and a half years later, Washington found itself stuck in Vietnam, unwilling to walk away.

What Johnson would not do-put the domino theory to the test by withdrawing U.S. forces-President Richard Nixon did do. When Nixon assumed office in 1969, 540,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. About 31,000 soldiers had already been killed, and an average of 200 were dying every week. Nixon opposed staying the course, but he also argued that “the precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.” Nixon’s solution was “Vietnamization”: to gradually replace U.S. troops with South Vietnamese forces and, if possible, strike a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese. After difficult negotiations, Hanoi publicly feigned buying into the plan but privately committed itself to bearing any human cost in order to prevail. In the end, the 1973 Paris peace accords offered Washington a graceful exit that allowed North Vietnam to defeat the South Vietnamese army in 1975.

As the United States’ war in South Vietnam faltered, Cambodia became a victim. Unable to cut off Hanoi’s vital lifelines into South Vietnam through Cambodia’s northeast, Phnom Penh attempted to maintain neutrality even as Cambodia’s frontier became a battlefield. In 1969, the United States initiated an intense 14-month bombing campaign to interdict the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. Cambodia’s generals soon decided to no longer try to sustain the balancing act. The Cambodian National Assembly deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, replacing him with the pro-American general and ex-prime minister Lon NoI. But the new leadership overplayed its weak hand. Increasingly dispirited by the failing war in Vietnam, the United States would not commit to a major troop deployment in Cambodia. Instead, to avoid congressional opposition to U.S. involvement, the Nixon administration exported captured Russian arms to Phnom Penh and encouraged other governments to do the same. The assistance proved paltry, and once Congress nixed the appropriation for air support for Cambodian troops, the fate of Cambodia’s anticommunist regime was sealed.

In 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces marched into Phnom Penh and took control. The slaughter that followed marks one of the darkest moments of the late twentieth century; still, contrary to U.S. leaders’ apprehensions, the fall of Cambodia, Vietnam, and then Laos to the communists did not cause any more dominoes to topple. One reason is that the United States’ withdrawal dissolved the glue that had held its adversaries together. Even before the last U.S. soldier departed Vietnam, in 1975, the fraternal bonds between the communist countries had begun to crumble. Shortly after U.S. helicopters lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon that April, the Khmer Rouge, which had revived centuries-old claims to portions of Vietnam, attacked two disputed islands under Vietnam’s control, killing hundreds of Vietnamese.

Thus began the Third Indochina War, with the domino sentinels falling on themselves. The Khmer Rouge continued its incursions into Vietnam; Hanoi pushed back. Then, in 1979, Vietnamese forces marched into Cambodia to remove Pol Pot, a move that prompted China, his ally, to attack Vietnam. In the end, as the United States sat back and observed, none of the purported communist allies could digest the other, and the interventions ended. Their imperial ambitions defeated, the former belligerents focused on rebuilding their economies, and both the United States and Indochina left the past to the past.

Leaving Lebanon

The U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the early 19805 presents the closest parallel to Iraq today. A country torn by sectarian violence since 1975, Lebanon saw an even more complex array of contestants Christian, Druze, Shiite, and Sunni militias, along with the Iranians, the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Syrians-pitted against one another. Attempting to promote a modicum of order, the United States and its Western allies stepped into the fray.

In 1982, the Lebanese civil war, which had already cost tens of thousands of lives, reached a new stage: Israeli forces invaded Lebanon to expel the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had taken refuge in Beirut. As the nightly news televised graphic images of Israel’s bombing of the Lebanese capital, the Reagan administration fashioned a plan to halt the violence. Its solution was to create a multinational peacekeeping force that would promote the departure of all foreign armies from Lebanon, starting with that of the PLO. For the residents of Beirut, the arrival of U.S., French, and Italian soldiers in late August 1982 was a welcome reprieve from the constant violence. The PLO leadership soon left Lebanon, and U.S. forces followed suit on September 10. The job seemed finished.

But peace failed to follow the parting, and the score settling began. Syrian agents assassinated the newly elected Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, on September 14. With their Lebanese ally dead, Israeli forces entered Beirut and transported members of Gemayel’s militia to clean out PLO fighters in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, in southern Lebanon, The resulting massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians sickened outsiders, including Ronald Reagan, who ordered the reinsertion of U.S. and allied forces to help the Lebanese government restore stability. The effort proved quixotic, because it supported the Christian-dominated government, the United States found itself in the bull’s-eye of local Shiites and Druze, the Syrians, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. To the contending parties, the U.S. military had become just another militia.

Inevitably, the United States’ enemies began to hit their targets. A van carrying explosives destroyed the U.S. embassy in April 1983, and the multinational forces soon came under attack, too. Offshore, U.S. naval forces responded with their big guns against enemy sites. Reagan dug in his heels further, announcing that terrorism would not drive the United States out of Lebanon. That Moscow might take advantage of a U.S. withdrawal also weighed heavily on his mind.

The notion that saving Lebanon was worth losing U.S. lives began to fade, however, after a series of attacks: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks, which killed 241 U.S. troops, and then the downing of U.S. military aircraft and the loss of additional marines elsewhere. Reagan put on a determined public face. In a February 4, 1984, radio address, he called on the American people to remain stalwart: “Yes, the situation in Lebanon is difficult, frustrating, and dangerous. But that is no reason to turn our backs on friends and to cut and run.” But three days later, his advisers decided to do just that, and Reagan meekly agreed. Explaining the about-face, which the White House press office called a “decisive new step,” John Poindexter, then deputy national security adviser, told reporters that “the immediate fighting in the streets of Beirut is a problem for the government of Lebanon and the Lebanese armed forces to control.”

Lebanon’s civil war would continue for the rest of the decade. Its conclusion, brokered by the Arab League, ended the general mayhem, but it did not prevent years of political instability, the presence of Syrian forces in the country until 2005, and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The intensity of Lebanon’s sectarian conflict and the difficulty of ending it previewed what the United States would later confront in Iraq. But there is one clear difference: after suffering some hard knocks, the Reagan administration conceded that cutting its losses was a better tack than staying the course. The decision saved Washington from becoming the pinata in a civil conflict that the United States could not resolve.

Saving Somalia

The 1990s, Somalia: a new decade brought a new U.S. intervention-and another eventual withdrawal that spared the united States a long and problematic occupation of a severely divided country. In the wake of the economic collapse and clan-based anarchy that had followed the 1991 overthrow of Somali President Muhammad Siad Barre, an undermanned and outgunned UN force struggled to bring humanitarian relief to Somalia. The country presented a daunting challenge. Same 350,000 inhabitants, induding one-quarter of those under the age of five, had already died from civil strife and famine. As warlords disrupted and hoarded limited food supplies in the drought-stricken countrysidc, 1.5 million Somalis found themselves at risk of starvation, and 800,00 were dislodged from their homes.

Prompted by reports of Somalia’s humanitarian disaster, President George H. W. Bush decided Washington had to intervene. Providing the imprimatur was a December1992 UN Security Council resolution sponsored by the United States that would place more than 25,000 U.S. troops, along with 12,000 additional forces from over two dozen other countries, into this corner of the Horn of Africa. The point of the mission was not to address the roots of the fighting but to apply a humanitarian tourniquet by securing food warehouses, repairing roadways to allow food distribution, and confiscating militia arsenals. In May1993, having succeeded in their initial famine-relief mission, the U.S. combat forces turned over nation-building responsibilities to 16,000 un peacekeepers and 1,200 supporting U.S. troops.

Within days, anarchy began to return. Skirmishes broke out between the new UN force and local militias, and the killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers distributing food in Mogadishu marked a turning point for the mission. Determined to capture the leading culprit, the clan leader Muhammad Farrah Aidid, President Bill Clinton sent in the Army Rangers. Their mission was a disaster: two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, 18 U.S. soldiers died, and 80 others were wounded. Cheering Somalis dragged some of the dead U.S. soldiers through the streets. Congress demanded that the United States get out, and quit it did.

Clinton later explained the problem. “If we went back in and nabbed Aidid, dead or alive, then we, not the UN, would own Somalia,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and there was no guarantee that we could put it together politically any better than the UN had.” And so for a decade after the United States withdrew from Somalia, it left the issue on the back burner, without regret. Walter Kansteiner, then assistant secretary of state for African affairs, described the sentiment behind the neglect to Congress in 2002:

Quite frankly, the United States has not paid a great deal of policy-level attention [to Somalia] since 1994. Civil war, external intervention, clan conflict, and poverty have combined to turn Somalia into a “failed state.” If the United States and the international community want good governance for Somalia more than the Somalis do themselves, the effort is doomed to fail.

But after 9/11, Washington no longer had the luxury of turning its back on Somalia; doing so would have risked allowing the entire Horn of Africa to become an al Qaeda safe haven. With diplomacy stuck-nearly 20 years of peace conferences had failed to bring the parties together and humanitarian assistance unable to promote peace, Washington had three options: it could send in troops, rely on domestic and international surrogates, or pursue targeted killings of Somalia-based al Qaeda operatives from the air.

Unwilling to risk another “Black Hawk down” incident or worse, Washington covertly assisted warlords and backed Ethiopia’s aoo6 military intervention to ferret out terrorists and defeat the Islamic Courts Union, the radical militia that had taken control of much of Somalia. These efforts failed, and the United States’ targeted killings had mixed results, eliminating some suspected terrorists but enraging the Somali population in the process. However, as of this writing, the Islamists can take little solace: although they face no competition from Somalia’s internationally recognized but dysfunctional Transitional Federal Government, they remain divided in an anarchic land.

Somalia now endures in a political and economic vacuum. This has left Washing-. ton to fashion a new strategy that can support friendly neighboring states and moderate groups in an effort to prevent radical Islam from metastasizing in Somalia. The United States can enjoy a fortunate flexibility in this task as a result of its decision years ago not to bog itself down in a commitment that, risked becoming a quagmire.

Withdrawal Lessons

The United States’ experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia have much to teach about the risks and benefits of staying the course in conflict-torn countries such as Iraq. In the end, U.S. decision-makers approached each intervention hopeful that it would serve the national interest. But when the situations soured – when local populations failed to resolve their differences, when the mounting U.S. casualties started to appear needless, when policymakers failed to identify vital national interests that an on-the-ground presence would protect, and when no clear exit strategy emerged Washington called it quits. Despite much foreboding, the United States’ exits in these examples better served its interests than soldiering on would have.

By no means did these retreats bring peace to the regions in question; in fact, civil conflict often worsened, and the turmoil resulting from the power vacuum frequently lured neighboring states into interventions of their own. In each of the cases, the interventions – Cambodia’s and China’s in Vietnam, Syria’s in Lebanon, and Ethiopia’s in Somalia – ultimately proved to be more than the intervenors could bear. And in each case, the intervenors, like the United States before them, eventually gave up and withdrew, leaving the task of rebuilding to the intervened. Southeast Asia became politically and economically stable, whereas Lebanon and Somalia are still works in progress. After the United States left, Lebanon continued to stumble but managed its affairs; Somalia remains in tatters, with neighboring states and international organizations attempting to impose order.

But however undesirable the aftermaths of U.S. withdrawals for the local populations, Washington, staying in the background, found itself better off. Of course the United States did not come out of these events entirely unscathed; its failed interventions hurt its credibility (Indeed, Islamic fundamentalist have taken advantage of U.S. retreats to raise the fervor of their followers.) In an ARA dominated by fears that dominoes would fall after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, Washington’s failure in Indochina, as Henry Kissinger later argued, did give “psychological impetus” for subsequent Cuban and Soviet interventions in Africa and Afghanistan. But history ended up working to the Union’s States’ advantage. Heeding the lessons of Southeast Asia for the remainder of the Cold War, Washington adopted a nimble strategy to keep boots off the ground in new hotspots in Asia and Africa, choosing to support local proxies instead of intervening itself Applied to the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, the tactic defeated the Kremlin on the battlefield, adding to an increasingly unbearable set of economic and political stresses that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

It would be wise unwise to rely on the possibility of such favorable twists of fate in Iraq to overcome the reputational costs of leaving. For Washington, one important legacy of its searing Iraq experience will hopefully be an reinvention of the nimbleness it demonstrated after Vietnam: applying force more wisely and with more nuance, supporting proxies, using diplomacy, and exercising soft power. Unfortunately for Iraq, what the cases examined here consistently suggest is that whenever the United States does withdraw, the country’s sectarian violence will likely intensi1~ Whether neighbors will intervene militarily remains uncertain, but Iraq, which is now more experienced at resistance, should be no less frustrating to intervenors than countries in similar situations have been in the past. Regardless of whether regional troubles will affect Iraq, ultimately it will be the Iraqis who will define their own future in their own way. Given the country’s deep divisions, the likely outcome will look more like the periodically erupting Lebanon than the long-stable Vietnam.

Washington is now left with a choice about Iraq. It can stick to the agreed timetable and leave in 2011 (perhaps allowing leeway for an extension through a mutual U. S. -Iraqi agreement) or it can withdraw much sooner. At least two templates might inform the decision. On the one hand, Nixon’s “peace with honor” formula would try to save the United States’ reputation by prolonging its stay, spending more blood and treasure, and wagering that Iraqization will outperform Vietnamization. On the other hand, Washington can swallow its pride and follow the lessons of Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia: when internal political dysfunction overwhelms external attempts at stabilization, getting out sooner rather than later is the United States’ best chance to protect its interests.