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Vietnam and Iraq: The Benefits of Getting Out

by Hal Brands on Oct 4, 2007

Because the Bush administration’s “surge” has failed to produce the promised results in Iraq, the administration’s calls to stay the course in that conflict have taken on a desperate tone. The president and his supporters frequently cite the consequences of the Vietnam War as an argument against withdrawal, claiming that the U.S. exit from Indochina 35 years ago produced catastrophic consequences and that a retreat from Iraq would be more damaging still.

This analogy may be appealing, but it’s a false one. The problem with the Vietnam analogy is not so much the difficulty of drawing comparisons between two different situations. The problem is that the most important similarities between Iraq and Vietnam are almost precisely the opposite of what President Bush often argues. The correct conclusion to draw from the U.S. experience in Vietnam is that we should withdraw from Iraq, as we should have done in Vietnam, before American power is irreparably damaged.Because the Bush administration’s “surge” has failed to produce the promised results in Iraq, the administration’s calls to stay the course in that conflict have taken on a desperate tone. The president and his supporters frequently cite the consequences of the Vietnam War as an argument against withdrawal, claiming that the U.S. exit from Indochina 35 years ago produced catastrophic consequences and that a retreat from Iraq would be more damaging still.

By the early 1970s, American involvement in Vietnam had become a strategic disaster. The war was sucking U.S. economic and military resources into a conflict in which the country had little to gain and much to lose. Vietnam had left the United States isolated and reviled throughout much of the world, with most U.S. allies believing that the war was neither moral nor winnable. Just as important, the conflict had created deep divisions within the United States and led to the breakdown of the longstanding Cold War consensus on foreign policy.

In these circumstances, quitting Vietnam wasn’t a calamitous retreat but rather an overdue retrenchment that had broadly positive consequences for U.S. foreign policy. In a geopolitical sense, withdrawal allowed U.S. officials to adapt to an international environment that had changed substantially since World War II. Ending the war in Vietnam helped produce detente with the Soviet Union and China, facilitated the restoration of a world balance of power, and reduced the strains on an overtaxed American empire.

In diplomatic terms, leaving Vietnam was a prerequisite to reestablishing U.S. moral standing abroad. By the early 1970s, at the height of the war, many U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere had become concerned that a country willing to spend 20 years and 50,000 lives opposing an anti-colonial liberation struggle was seriously lacking in competent leadership. Withdrawing from Vietnam thus removed a persistent irritant in U.S. relations with its closest allies and deprived American enemies of an invaluable propaganda point.

Conceding defeat in Indochina was also central to recreating a national consensus on foreign policy. The war had eroded the U.S. commitment to an activist foreign policy, giving voice to doubts about whether American military intervention in any country was ever justified. It was only after the war ended that most Americans could look past the bloodshed and divisions caused by the conflict and begin to move toward the post-Vietnam consensus that took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Iraq is not Vietnam, but the analogy between these two wars can be useful in highlighting the costs of the current conflict. As did the Vietnam War, U.S. involvement in Iraq has produced a profound strategic myopia on the part of American policymakers. The Iraq war has drained U.S. military and economic resources and distracted the Bush administration from longer-term challenges to American power. It has deeply damaged the foreign policy consensus that emerged after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and left the future course of U.S. diplomacy in doubt. And, like the Vietnam War, the conflict in Iraq has led much of the world to conclude that the United States lacks the wisdom and maturity required of a superpower.

As in Vietnam, withdrawal from Iraq is not an attractive option, but it is the least bad exit from a situation that has become immensely corrosive to American power and prestige. There is little chance of moving toward a new foreign policy consensus as long as the Iraq war remains the single most visible issue in American politics. Internationally, only a withdrawal will ease the military exhaustion and economic strains caused by the war and permit the gradual restoration of U.S. moral leadership. And, from a strategic perspective, it will be difficult for American diplomats to arrive at a clear assessment of a changing world scene as long as the war rages.

Getting out of Iraq will be emotionally wrenching. President Bush is probably right that withdrawal will lead to intense sectarian conflict in Iraq. Americans will not remember this episode any more fondly than they recall the scene of U.S. helicopters evacuating the Saigon embassy in 1975 and leaving so many Vietnamese allies behind to their awful fate. But, as was the case 35 years ago in Vietnam, withdrawal from Iraq is the only way to rescue American power and set our foreign policy on a more sustainable and unified footing. If America is looking for a real Vietnam analogy, this is it.


Hal Brands is the author of "From Berlin to Baghdad: America's Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World," and is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. He is also a Davis Fellow working at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.