By Max Boot
Monday, March 31, 2008 12:00 AM
Why am I not reassured by Zbigniew Brzezinski's breezy assurance in Sunday's Outlook section that "forecasts of regional catastrophe" after an American pullout from Iraq are as overblown as similar predictions made prior to our pullout from South Vietnam? Perhaps because the fall of Saigon in 1975 really was a catastrophe. Another domino fell at virtually the same time -- Cambodia.
Estimates vary, but a safe bet is that some two million people died in the killing fields of Cambodia. In South Vietnam, the death toll was lower, but hundreds of thousands were consigned to harsh "reeducation" camps where many perished, and hundreds of thousands more risked their lives to flee as "boat people."
The consequences of the U.S. defeat rippled outward, emboldening communist aggression from Angola to Afghanistan. Iran's willingness to hold our embassy personnel hostage -- something that Brzezinski should recall -- was probably at least in part a reaction to America's post-Vietnam malaise. Certainly the inability of the U.S. armed services to rescue those hostages was emblematic of the "hollow," post-Vietnam military. It took us more than a decade to recover from the worst military defeat in our history.
In a sense, however, we have never been able to shed its baleful legacy. Thirty years later, Ayman al Zawahiri acknowledged that he was still inspired by "the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents."
The consequences of withdrawal and defeat in Iraq are likely to be even more serious, because it is located in a more volatile and strategically important region. Brzezinski thinks that Shiite-Sunni enmity is "in large part the sour byproduct of the destructive U.S. occupation" and would evaporate after our departure. Few serious analysts share his optimism.
Most of those who have spent any time in Iraq agree with the National Intelligence Estimate issued last year. It warned: "If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly ... we judge that the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries -- invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally -- might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] would attempt to use parts of the country -- particularly al-Anbar province -- to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq... could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion."
Brzezinski writes that such dire scenarios can be averted "by political and regional initiatives designed to guard against potential risks." Perhaps he is referring to something like the Iraq Neighbors Conference which the U.S. will reconvene in Kuwait in April with representatives from all of the nearby states, the United Nations, and other international organizations. This is the third such conference in the past year. In addition, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad has met three times with Iran's envoy in an attempt to find common ground -- so far nonexistent.
Contrary to Brzezinski's clichéd claims about the "unilateral use of force," the Bush administration has worked hard, at least in the second term, to involve other countries in solving Iraq's problems. Perhaps these efforts have borne so little fruit because the administration lacks a diplomatist of Brzezinski's genius. More likely, it is because neighboring states are either actively hostile to the idea of a democratic, Shiite-led state or simply unwilling to risk much to help midwife its birth.
But although our allies will not solve Iraq's problems for us, that does not mean they want us to leave. During my travels in Europe and the Middle East in recent months I have heard many who opposed the invasion urge us to stay until the situation is stabilized. Ironically, considering the importance that Brzezinski places on restoring American standing in the world, nothing would be more calculated to aggravate other countries than a precipitous pullout. We would hear near-universal moaning that the Americans were leaving Iraq as recklessly as they entered it.
An early American departure is the last thing that most Iraqis or their elected representatives want. (In a recent ABC/BBC poll only 38 percent of Iraqis said that coalition forces should leave at once.) It would be cheered, however, by our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. Just as Islamist militants were emboldened by the Soviet Union's retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, so they would be encouraged by our premature departure from Iraq. Once we were out of Iraq (which Gen. David Petraeus has called "the central front of al-Qaeda's global war of terror"), they would be able to devote more resources to other battlefields such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Brzezinski claims the "end of the occupation will thus be a boon for the war on al-Qaeda." But how would a victory for al-Qaeda in Iraq help us to defeat al-Qaeda elsewhere?
He doesn't say. He simply takes it on faith that the risks of withdrawal are smaller than the costs of commitment. What he ignores is that we are making real progress. Notwithstanding recent fighting, violence is down dramatically since the surge started (over 70 percent by some measures) and political progress has followed, with the Iraqi parliament passing vital legislation.
An even more important sign of progress is the willingness of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to take up arms to fight Sunni and Shiite terrorists alongside American troops. Imagine their fate if we suddenly exit. I, for one, hope that we do not betray our allies in Iraq as we did in Southeast Asia.
Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today." He is a foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.