The President's Choices in Iraq

Nov. 29, 2006 — -- President Bush must now take the painful but necessary decisions on America's future role in Iraq that he avoided before this month's midterm elections.

His flexibility is diminished by the change in party control in the Congress.

The president finds himself in a position similar to that of another president from Texas, who 42 years ago avoided decisive action in Vietnam pending the outcome of the 1964 presidential elections.

Like Lyndon Johnson, President Bush has two options -- escalation or withdrawal.

In his election campaign against Sen. Barry Goldwater, Johnson promised the American people that "we are not about to send American boys [9,000 miles] or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

In fact, by the fall of 1964, the United States already had an advisory force of 23,000 men in Vietnam.

But pressure was building. According to Stanley Karnow, a historian of the Vietnam War, "Viet Cong strength during 1964 doubled to a total of 170,000 men."

The tempo of Viet Cong attacks picked up during the fall of 1964.

"We are presently on a losing track. To take no positive action now is to accept defeat in the fairly near future," said Maxwell Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, in January 1965.

The triggering event was the Feb. 6-7, 1965 Communist attack on a U.S. base near Pleiku that killed a number of Americans.

The United States launched bombing attacks on North Vietnam under the operational names "Flaming Dart" and "Rolling Thunder."

Two U.S. Marine battalions arrived in South Vietnam early in 1965. By the end of 1965, U.S. forces in the country stood at 200,000 -- a figure that would grow to more than half a million.

Johnson, with his Great Society legislation pending in the Congress, said, "I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day the communists took over China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy and I knew that all these problems, taken together were chicken shit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam."

John McNaughton, a Defense Department official, opined in an internal memo written in March 1965 that the United States had escalated for three reasons:

Casimir Yost is the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

  • 70 percent to avoid a humiliating defeat
  • 20 percent to keep South Vietnam from Chinese influence
  • 10 percent to allow South Vietnamese to live in a free society
  • Johnson's public rationale was laid out in an April 1965 speech at Johns Hopkins University in which he warned, "Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another."

    Forty-two years later, President George W. Bush faces agonizing choices in Iraq.

    Last month, 105 Americans and more than 3,000 Iraqis died in escalating violence in the region.

    Despite more than 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces and roughly 300,000 Iraqi security forces, the country is edging toward chaos.

    The lethal combination of criminals, sectarian militias and jihadist terrorists is placing a united Iraq at grave risk of collapse and breakup.

    The elected government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki is unable or unwilling to take decisive steps to address the violence.

    "If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves and use Iraq as a base to overthrow moderate governments across the broader Middle East," Bush said.

    Bush faces the prospect of a strategic reversal in Iraq, which could diminish U.S. global influence, empower terrorists, and destroy the credentials of the Republican Party as the party that "does" national security better than the other party.

    The Nov. 7 midterm elections were a referendum on the president's policies in Iraq.

    The American electorate clearly demanded a changed approach.

    The dilemma that the president faces is that U.S. influence in Iraq peaked around the time that the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

    This was when the United States had maximum leverage. Since then, we have ceded influence to jihadists, insurgents, and most recently the Maliki government.

    President Bush has two broad choices, neither of them good.

    Casimir Yost is the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

    He can accept a withdrawal schedule favored by many members of Congress, which will mean that U.S. influence will decline further until we are largely irrelevant to Iraq's future.

    He can then, one assumes, blame the Democrats for the ensuing chaos. Alternatively, he can seek to expand the U.S. role in Iraq's future -- militarily with more troops and diplomatically by genuinely engaging with Iraq's neighbors including Syria and Iraq.

    The latter option hardly guarantees success. The possibility of sending more troops may effectively be gone in light of the U.S. election results, and Iraq's neighbors will have little interest in bailing out the United States.

    It may be too late for America to rescue either Iraq or our precarious position in the Middle East.

    As Columbia University professor Richard Betts has written, "Just because failure is unthinkable does not mean success is possible."

    Lyndon Johnson sought victory in Vietnam because he saw the costs of defeat as being too high.

    George W. Bush now needs to make his own choice before that choice is imposed on the United States by a worsening situation in Iraq.

    The president does not want his legacy to be a picture of the final American helicopter lifting from the Green Zone in Baghdad, but that may prove to be the lasting image of America's ill-conceived and executed intrusion into this troubled country.

    Casimir Yost is the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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