The Time to Negotiate Is Now

By Robert K. Brigham
Sunday, January 14, 2007

They're reportedly favorite reruns on Arab television: scenes of U.S. troops packing up and going home, from Beirut in 1983, Mogadishu in 1993 and that panicked flight from Vietnam in 1975. The message in these images, broadcast repeatedly on al-Jazeera, al-Manar and other channels, is clear: The United States doesn't have the will to win. Soon, it will pull out of Baghdad just as its diplomats hightailed it out of Saigon.

Islamic radicals' fervent dream that Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam has now become Washington's nightmare. Despite President Bush's call for more troops in Iraq, each day seems to bring closer an endgame there that could echo the one of three decades earlier, with U.S. helicopters landing "inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof," as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) recently put it.

That image would seem to bring the United States full circle, retreating from another ill-conceived war and nursing an "Iraq syndrome" much like the Vietnam syndrome that limited U.S. foreign policy for decades afterward.

But there's a difference: Today's policymakers have the benefit of the Vietnam experience. It's not too late to draw on its lessons to ensure a better outcome in Iraq. It's still possible to snatch victory from defeat -- if the Bush administration understands that there is no hope of a narrowly defined military victory in Iraq, and that the best it can wish for is a negotiated settlement that will bring greater stability and security to the region.

In many ways, the Iraq endgame shows signs of playing out along the same lines as Vietnam's. The administration's insistence on the troop-surge strategy has already invited a Vietnam-era response from the new Democratic Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Biden, opened public hearings on the Iraq war last week, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation to prevent the White House from increasing troop levels in Iraq without congressional approval.

It was the Foreign Relations Committee, under Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), that propelled the steady decline in public support for the Vietnam War when it began public hearings to investigate the Johnson administration's handling of that conflict in February 1966. The country was spending $2 billion a month on the war and the casualties were rising dramatically. With little to show for this high cost in blood and treasure, Americans began to turn against the war. Mounting frustration with White House policies in Vietnam led to more congressional hearings and eventually to the War Powers Act, passed in 1973, which required the president to inform Congress within 48 hours of any deployment of U.S. military forces abroad and to withdraw them within 60 days in the absence of further congressional endorsement.

Though none passed, many other restrictive congressional resolutions -- requiring an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal or severely limiting what U.S. forces could do on the ground -- were introduced during the Vietnam War. We may well see similar resolutions proposed in the next few months. And this Congress could cut funding for troop increases -- making the president's surge impossible. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have suggested that Congress may move to restrict funding for more troops, although it would approve the president's budget request for more money to support those forces already in Iraq.

Faced with a similarly hostile Congress and public, President Richard M. Nixon's administration was forced to pursue a political strategy in Vietnam. Nixon continued to apply military pressure against the North, but he also began a unilateral, phased U.S. troop withdrawal designed to force Saigon to take fuller responsibility for South Vietnam's security.

Nixon also brought China and the Soviet Union into negotiations to end the war by making them partners in the solution. At the time, no one could have predicted that either communist superpower would be willing to trade Hanoi's interests for lessening cold war tensions in Southeast Asia. Nor could anyone have predicted in 1969 that the Nixon administration would eventually agree to a political settlement that required the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam without requiring North Vietnam to do the same. Yet that is what happened.

Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, took credit for ending the Vietnam War on terms that he said made the region more secure and the international system more stable. Although he overstates his case, it does seem clear that the Bush administration can learn some lessons from the end of the Vietnam War.

As it did in Vietnam, the time has come for the United States to announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. No meaningful settlement can take place while Washington is escalating the war. A schedule for phased troop withdrawal would signal to regional players that Washington is interested in a political settlement to the conflict. It would also allow Washington to pressure the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take responsibility for rebuilding Iraq's civil society instead of enabling a civil war. Finally, as difficult as negotiations might be, it is time to think of the Iraq war in regional terms. Because of the sectarian violence threatening to rip the country apart, it will be impossible to settle the civil war without thinking of Baghdad's more powerful neighbors, including Syria and Iran.

Granted, the idea of regional negotiations poses significant problems. It could give states such as Syria and Iran more influence over Shiites and events inside Iraq than they deserve. It assumes that the Sunni states can control or isolate the more radical elements of the insurgency. It suggests that most players in the region want to limit the conflict to Iraq. And it relies on a dramatic change in the nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Washington is unlikely to abandon its long-standing support of Israel -- nor should it -- but in a balance-of-power peace settlement, Israel will need to enter into negotiations with some of its regional enemies. Nonetheless, it seems that diplomacy is the best hope for the future.

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