In the Middle East, Obama’s retreat has created a catastrophic vacuum of power.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)


Mario Loyola

The Korean War is justly remembered as a valiant struggle. And yet the conflict could have been avoided but for a major blunder on the part of the Truman administration. The year before South Korea was attacked, the U.S. withdrew the forces it had left there in the wake of World War II. It was the ensuing vacuum of power that precipitated that terrible war.

The lesson has been lost on most Americans, starting with Barack Obama. Bent on withdrawing U.S. power from the Middle East, Obama removed the major counterweight to the competing extremist forces there. As a result, the conflicts smoldering beneath the surface have burst into a major conflagration in a region that is far more vital to U.S. interests than Korea was.

When the U.S. withdrew its forces from Korea in the spring of 1949 — against the advice of commanders on the ground — it left behind a lightly armed dictatorship in no condition to defend itself. And then, in January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered his famous “perimeter speech,” which pointedly left South Korea outside our postwar military perimeter along the Pacific Rim.

It was an irresistible invitation for the North to invade, and when Kim Il-sung accepted it in June 1950, he bulldozed over the South’s army and rapidly engulfed most of the country. The Truman administration reacted quickly, and American forces began pouring into the vanishing redoubt in Pusan, at the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

Somebody should have pointed out to Truman in 1949 that, having withdrawn the garrison and left South Korea a sitting duck, he had made a North Korean invasion much more likely. If the U.S. was prepared to fight in Korea, it should have left sufficient forces there to deter an attack in the first place. Bolstering a dictatorship like Syngman Rhee’s was hardly palatable, but we ended up having no choice.

U.S. forces in Korea eventually reached 330,000 troops. And, in a horrific irony, the number of U.S. soldiers killed or missing in action proved almost exactly the same as the number we withdrew in 1949. In many cases the Americans who died in Korea were the same soldiers we had withdrawn to Japan a year or two earlier. Little did they know that, by being withdrawn from Korea too soon, they were being sent to their graves.

The most basic reason to keep forces in Iraq after 2011 was not to continue the war — which was already over by the time Obama was sworn in as president — but rather so that we wouldn’t have to fight a major war in the Middle East again. Granted, U.S. forces had become necessary only as a result of the 2003 invasion and the toppling of Saddam. But simply ignoring that necessity and withdrawing the troops could not undo the Iraq War, any more than abandoning open-heart surgery midway can undo the initial incision.

The Obama administration makes the excuse that because Iraq’s National Assembly refused to pass a law granting immunity from local criminal prosecution for U.S. troops, we were forced to leave. This is preposterous, and the media should stop repeating it. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki offered to issue an executive order that would have satisfied U.S. concerns. Indeed, minimal U.S. forces are now back in Iraq under cover of just such an executive order. But the bigger point is that we had just won the war. We had defeated all the warring factions in Iraq. By 2009 virtually all the factions had some degree of dependency on the U.S., and they all understood that we were going to leave when we were good and ready.

Obama’s talking point that “no nation should be above another” is a fine principle of diplomatic protocol. But as grand strategy, as some sort of attempt to achieve a more “just” correlation of forces, it is a recipe for disaster. Just as the British presence was necessary in the Trucial States in the century before the creation of the United Arab Emirates, so today the two alternatives in the Middle East are a dominant U.S. presence and chaos.

The central position the U.S. had achieved in the Middle East by 2009 was not merely the result of victory in the Iraq War. It was a position carefully built up over decades. It started in the 1950s and 1960s with a de facto protectorate of the oil-producing Gulf Kingdoms. It was consolidated in the 1970s with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s success in gaining Jordan’s trust and turning Egypt away from the Soviet Union and toward peace with Israel. And it was further built up by both of the wars with Iraq.