No one wants to be a loser. In the sports world,
some players and fans take losing so seriously that they resort to violence.
The same attitude colors our approach to international relations, especially
During the Vietnam War, many, including Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara and President
Lyndon Johnson, knew we were unable to win the conflict, yet they lacked
the courage to admit they had lost. They prolonged the war because no one wanted
to "cut and run." When Richard
Nixon ran for president in 1968, he claimed to have a plan to get us out
of the war. He would bring "peace with honor"; in other words, he
would not lose. Since he could not walk away a winner, he escalated the war.
To this day, many conservatives believe that we could have won that war if we
had tried harder. The New
York Times on April 1, 2007, quoted Rep. John Boehner,
the minority leader, on the end of the Vietnam War:"We left chaos and genocide
in the streets of Vietnam because we pulled the troops out and didn't have the
will to win." Sen.
John McCain, a prisoner of war for over five years,
considers the war in Vietnam to have been a "noble cause." The U.S could
have won the war, he contends, if the president had sent ground forces into
North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign.
Today we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which has one of the fastest
growing economies in the world. While it is still ostensibly Communist, its
leaders have loosened their grip on the people. Would the U.S., Vietnam, or
the world as a whole be better off today if we had fought on as McCain and Boehner
have recommended? It is hard to see how. We would have lost more young men and
women, as would the Vietnamese. Winning presumably would have meant establishing
a North Vietnam and a South Vietnam independent of each other. I doubt the separate
countries after a longer conflict would be as prosperous as the united country
is today. Assuming McCain and Boehner are right that we could have won the war
in even that sense – a doubtful proposition – spending another three, four,
five, or more years achieving victory would have provided no benefits to the
U.S., but many costs.
What does this tell us about the current war in Iraq? Note that we have already
lost more of our armed forces (over
3,200 dead) in the first four years of this conflict than we did in the
10 years for which the U.S. government counts deaths in Vietnam. We cannot
win this war, if by "winning" one means creating a unified, democratic,
peaceful Iraq with a government friendly to the U.S. Most of the American public
would like to see us leave, but without losing. President George Bush plays
on this emotion by asserting that we can win if we stay the course. He says
setting a definite date for withdrawal is "surrender." If the war
is to be lost, which it already is, he wants the acknowledgment of that loss
delayed until the next president's term.
Supporters of the war claim that pulling out will make the United States look
weak and encourage others to take advantage of us. This is simply nonsense.
Everyone knows the United States military can conquer almost any country; it
may find it impossible to pacify the people, but it can defeat any military.
Nevertheless, many claim that we cannot afford to show weakness by leaving Iraq.
We see the same belief at work in the current standoff between Britain and Iran,
in which neither party wants to back down for fear of seeming weak. Thus, both
sides escalate the confrontation.
Once Iraq had established a constitution and elected a government, Bush could
have announced victory and gone home. Of course, he would have left behind a
mounting civil war and an ineffective government unlikely to remain friendly
to the U.S. and Israel. He also would have failed to achieve (a) his announced
aim of establishing a functioning democracy and (b) his unspoken ambition to
build military bases to protect Israel and project U.S. government interests
in the Middle East. But the U.S. and Iraq would both be better off today.
Unfortunately, the next president will face the same problem. To pull out is
to "lose," and the public is unlikely to support a loser. Who among
the presidential candidates has the courage to pull our troops out? Note that
most of those running talk in terms of redeployment and try to lay the blame
for any failure on the Iraqis. Any future president who does withdraw will suffer
a backlash from the bitter-enders. Withdrawal will take courage and the willingness
to accept defeat on the battlefield and, most likely, at the ballot box. If
we continue to pursue an impossible victory, however, we will face mounting
casualties and insurmountable expenses.