Thursday night, U.S. President George W. Bush confirmed what Gen. David Petraeus had already signalled to the U.S. Congress: the beginning of American troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Both claimed that the success of the U.S. “surge strategy,” since the beginning of this year, had made these cuts possible—from 20 combat brigades to 15 by July of next year, a reduction of 30,000 troops, of which 5,700 will be home for Christmas. The force remaining in Iraq will take more of a support role, to the Iraqi army; but both this and the troop reductions are predicated on continued success in the field.
Congressional Democrat opponents of the whole Iraq project (who for the most part supported it when it began) are now outraged, realizing that the reductions are only to levels before the surge. They want American troops out faster, with unqualified deadlines for withdrawal. The leading Democrat presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, has used the debate to position herself more decisively among the “anti-war” activists of the Left, who are the party’s core constituency today—the people whose enthusiasm is needed to campaign. This is a calculated risk, because to win an election, that core constituency must find a way to attach a much larger constituency of “middle Americans,” who can be persuaded that something is wrong, and that the Democrats know how to fix it. It is invariably the second part of that proposition that is hardest for any political party to sell.
The opinion polls show Americans quite unhappy about Iraq, but do not show them eager to cut and run. Support for the war has recovered slightly in the time since the surge began, because demonstrable progress has been made. U.S. forces have finally succeeded in forging alliances with Sunni tribal chiefs, in a common effort to rid the country of foreign-sponsored insurgents. Thanks largely, I think, to this, the latter have been routed out of several towns and provinces where they previously enjoyed cover.
But both in Iraq, and in the U.S., exasperation is expressed at the failure of Iraq’s new political class to forge its own alliances across ethnic and sectarian divides, or to begin overcoming the wholesale corruption that has been endemic to Iraqi government since time out of mind.
In this, one is reminded of the criticisms that were routinely directed at the South Vietnamese political class, and at the government of President Nguyen Van Thieu, in the years before the U.S. abandoned her Vietnamese “clients” to the Communists.
I remember the late Mark Gayn, a sometimes cynical but often fairly well-informed old-school leftist writing for the Toronto Star about taking one of the last planes out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, before it was closed by mortars already falling in outlying parts of the field. He knew the corrupt and incompetent administration of the old Republic of Vietnam was finished—which was why he himself was running for his life. He recalled, poignantly, so many years in which he had (with reasonable accuracy) been reporting that incompetence and corruption. Suddenly he realized how unimportant that was, given the magnitude of the tragedy that was about to befall the Vietnamese people.
For several years, a comparison of Iraq to Vietnam has been de rigueur on the Left, and it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. While there has been little in common between the two battlefields, and the encounter between the U.S. and Islamism is utterly unlike that between the U.S. and Communism, the flagging American commitment is the same. In the case of Vietnam, too, Democrats in Congress who had earlier supported the war led demands for the exit and, in the end, they succeeded not only in compelling former U.S. president Richard Nixon to “negotiate” and pull the troops out, but also in cutting off all U.S. arms shipments to the South Vietnamese regime. It collapsed, quite literally, as it ran out of ammunition, still trying to resist the regular North Vietnamese army, armed to the teeth by the Soviet Union.
In the end, millions of desperate Vietnamese took to frail boats and the high seas in the hope of escaping the bloody “re-education camps.” And in neighbouring Cambodia, where Phnom Penh had also fallen, the killing fields were opened to one of the great holocausts of the 20th century.
That was the end. But the beginning of the end was rather like today: a beleaguered Republican president politically compelled to announce the first modest cuts, under pressure from a Democrat-controlled Congress.