If only Iraq were like Vietnam. After the 60-day siege of An Loc in the spring of 1972, where heavily outnumbered South Vietnamese troops and their American advisors rebuffed several North Vietnamese divisions, the Saigon government found itself in a superficially strong position, which gave President Richard M. Nixon the fig leaf he needed for a final withdrawal. South Vietnam had rarely been safer since the start of the war. You could travel around the country in relative security. Optimism might have been unwarranted, but it wasn't altogether blind.
More crucially, Vietnam had ultimately two chains of command, the South and North Vietnamese governments. Negotiations through third parties were easily organized, if hard to conduct. Vietnam was merely split, but Iraq is pulverized. To call Iraq a civil war is to be kind: within each sectarian community there is no group really in control. Nouri al-Maliki's government is little more than another faction that adds complexity rather than coherence to the situation.
Because no one is able to monopolize the use of force among either the Sunnis or Shiites, within each community various groups are in fierce competition over who can best defend it, which translates into who can murder more members of the other community. Even formal groupings like Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are aggregations of many smaller factions and death squads, whom their leaders don't always control. Only when the political struggle within each sectarian community calms down can the civil war itself be ameliorated. Right now, there is no one on any side with the pivotal power to negotiate with the other.
An emerging school of thought says that the only real leverage we're going to have is the threat of withdrawal, which would concentrate the minds of the various groups to seek modalities with each other for governing the country. That's a bet, not a plan. You could also bet that any timetable for withdrawal will lead to a meltdown of the Iraq Army according to region and sect. Even if we promise that all of our military advisors will stay put, in addition to our air and special operations assets, no one in a culture of rumor and conspiracy theory might believe us.
Because it turned out we had no postwar plan, our invasion (which I supported) amounted to a bet. Our withdrawal, when it comes to that, must be different. If we decide to reduce forces in the country under the current anarchic conditions, then we are both morally and strategically obligated to talk with Iran and Syria, as well as call for a regional conference. Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know. An odd event, or the announcement of pulling 20,000 American troops out, might trigger it. We simply cannot contemplate withdrawal under these conditions without putting Iraq's neighbors on the spot, forcing them to share public responsibility for the outcome, that is if they choose to stand aside and not help us.
What we should all fear is a political situation in Washington where a new Congress forces President George W. Bush to redeploy, and Bush, doing so under duress, makes only the most half-hearted of gestures to engage Iraq's neighbors in the process. That could lead to hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq, rather than the tens of thousands we have seen. An Iran that continues to enrich uranium is less of a threat to us than genocide in Iraq. A belligerent, nuclear Iran is something we will, as a last resort, be able to defend against militarily. And it probably won't come to that. But if we disengage from Iraq without publicly involving its neighbors, Sunni Arabs—who will bear the brunt of the mass murder—will hate us for years to come from Morocco to Pakistan. Our single greatest priority at the moment is preventing Iraq from sliding off the abyss.
A tottering Iraq, informally divided into Iranian and Syrian zones of influence, even as Iran continues to enrich uranium, is an awful prospect. But it is not without possibilities: states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to balance against the new Shiite hegemony, will implicitly move closer to us and to Israel, perhaps providing useful assistance in a settlement of the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, Teheran and Damascus will become further enmeshed in Iraq's problems. Future violence in Mesopotamia will become their fault; not ours. The weak border between Syria and the fundamentalist Sunni region of Iraq could well undermine the Alawite regime. We will manage.
What we will not be able to manage is a genocide, mainly of the Sunnis, that we alone will be seen as responsible for. Any withdrawal—with all of its military, diplomatic, economic aid, and emergency relief aid aspects—has to be as meticulously planned-out as our occupation wasn't. Staying the course may be a dead end. But don't think for a moment that "redeploying" is any less risky than invading.
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