Politics & Policy

Obama’s South Vietnam?

In Iraq, Bush snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with the surge. Obama is in danger of reversing the process.

At the end of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, the brilliant architects of the ouster of the Soviets from Afghanistan are begging for funds from Congress to consolidate their success on the ground. To no avail.

In less cinematic fashion, the same scenes are playing out on Capitol Hill over Iraq. The last U.S. combat brigade has crossed the border into Kuwait, bringing the U.S. presence down to 50,000, on the way to zero by the end of 2011. It leaves a country no longer embroiled in a hellish civil war and feeling its way toward stability amid continuing terror attacks and a deadlock over the formation of a new government.

This is possible only because the Bush surge of 2007 snatched an opportunity for victory from the jaws of defeat. Now, the question is whether we’ll lurch back into the maw of failure out of ideological willfulness, inattention, and foolish penny-pinching. The Obama administration wants $2 billion in funding next year for the Iraqi army. The Senate Armed Services Committee cut the request in half on the grounds that, to paraphrase roughly, “them Iraqis can pay fer their own damn army.”

The administration has vacillated between wanting to take credit for the windfall generated by the surge, and wanting to wash its hands of “Bush’s war.” At the same time that Joe Biden has averred that the emergence of a stable, democratic Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration,” the administration’s ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, has falsified both elements of “smart power” with his clueless passivity.

For all of Biden’s premature self-congratulation, Iraq could still become Obama’s South Vietnam, an ally we casually toss aside after Herculean efforts to get it to a tentatively sustainable state. Consolidating Iraq’s gains will require a deep strategic relationship and — inevitably — a continued U.S troop presence beyond 2011.

The administration has realized the folly of its hands-off approach to the stymied negotiations over a new government, and it is replacing Hill as ambassador with James Jeffrey, who knows something about the country. We’ll want to coax the Iraqis toward a coalition government, but without seeming overbearing.

That’s a natural task for diplomats — unlike many of their other new duties. At the beginning of the war, the military did everything, even jobs for which civilians were better suited; now, the situation will be reversed.

We currently station troops at checkpoints along disputed areas between Arabs and Kurds in the north of Iraq. The hope is that two embassy branches in Kirkuk and Mosul will fulfill the same friction-reducing function after we draw down, but diplomats mostly confined to their posts can’t replace boots on the ground.

The State Department will take over training of police forces, but it has failed miserably at this before in both Iraq and Afghanistan; it is building its own private security force, when we already have an army capable of protecting it; and there’s no substitute for an everyday relationship between the Iraqi and American militaries, which acts as a brake on any potentially extraconstitutional power grabs by the Iraqi army.

All of this means that the Bush-era status-of-forces agreement setting the departure of U.S. troops for the end of 2011 will eventually have to be revisited. In general, Iraq should be treated as an important regional ally. We have an interest in intertwining ourselves with the Iraqi military, in fostering trade and investment, in seeing top Iraqi students coming to study in the West — and, above all, in supporting an Iraqi government competent enough that it doesn’t discredit democracy.

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution notes that countries that experience intercommunal civil wars often slide back into conflict within five years after a ceasefire. The odds of a relapse go down when a great power plays a peacekeeping role. That’s us, unless we want Iraq to become a squandered opportunity alongside Afghanistan of the early 1990s and South Vietnam of the mid-1970s.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.  © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

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