Military withdrawals are the worst foreign policy

By Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa

As shorter version of this article has appeared on The San Francisco Chronicle in the following link: 

In the annals of American history, military withdrawals must be the worst form of foreign policy, as they are associated with failures in planning, objectives and execution. In the last two centuries, Vietnam and now Iraq – with the recent vote on the Senate-backed plan for a pullout – are two examples of American impolitic. No matter how rationalized or justified, withdrawal is the most irresponsible strategy in American geopolitics.

Unsure of its role in a post 9-11 multi-polar world, the U.S. two-party system rather implicates itself for foreign policy blunder rather than to unify and lead. As a recipient of the failed American intervention in Vietnam, which ended in the tragic and shameful debacle of the last century, I know all too well where this eventual withdrawal plan will lead the United States: down the slippery slope of credibility and onto another defeatist Vietnam syndrome, not to consider the fallout in the affected countries. After pullout from Iraq, would the U.S. resign to watching Iran exerting its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, while Israel tries to counter the imbalance by fueling a new upheaval of Arab extremism?

Thirty-two years after the defeat in Vietnam, the United States doesn’t need to be reminded that the struggle for democracy and freedom there has cost millions of lives – and a refugee crisis of untold proportion that strained the resources of many nations as well as those of the United States – not to mention decades of oppression, as exemplified by the renewed persecution of dissidents by Hanoi. This serves to underscore America’s “unfinished business” and the failure to learn its own lessons of war.

Of course, the two involvements differ in both nature and substance. In Vietnam, the precepts of nationalism and nationhood were forces already in play long before the United States interfered. Yet America’s withdrawal has festered killing fields in Cambodia and the Communist suppression of a nascent democratic voice in Vietnam, which continues with the U.S. coddling of a Mafia regime there today. 

In Iraq, the removal of a brutal dictator unleashed sectarian strife and revealed long-simmering factional divisions between the empowered and the disenfranchised – Sunni, and the Shiites and the Kurds – while the progressive moderates remained largely uninvolved.

While there is little doubt that the invasion of Iraq was poorly planned, or even wholly unnecessary, the worst of the situation for America is not how it was drawn into war, but the divisiveness of the two-party system, where one party is always ready to score victory at the expense of the other. Partisan politics, it seems, could care less about finding a way out of the Iraq impasse.

America’s larger problem is the lack of a well-defined national purpose and mission. This problem does not rest with the Bush administration and this Congress alone. From Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs (1961) to Johnson and Nixon’s Vietnam (1964-1973), Reagan’s Contras (1980-1986), to the Bushes’s Iraq (1991; 2003-?) the image of America as a country addicted to war has never stop roiling the people’s contrarian view. This manifests itself as the government’s inability to sell a cohesive foreign policy vision to America – be it hawk, dove, interventionist or isolationist.

Few Americans would agree with Washington where our national interest lies, let alone what it should be. There is no national debate or consensus regarding the role of America befitting its status as the world power. In spite of its divisive image back home, America is viewed by many countries around the world as the beacon of freedom and human rights. Sure, democracy is a tired-old concept, bandied about in foreign policy speeches, yet it is a real and attainable goal, at least for Vietnam.

While the majority of Americans favor withdrawal from Iraq – and that may soon be the sorry end for a costly dilemma – I’m not so much against pulling out as I am tormented by the idea that America believes it can just invade any country, then leave it in shambles. 

These occupations often come with the admonition that “when you stand for democracy, America stands with you.” But no one needs to stand by the country that’s about go to hell in a hand basket because partisanship denies it collective leadership in favor of extricating itself from Iraq and coming clean for the next presidential campaign.  And Colin Powell’s corollary: “You break it, you own it” should become a mantra for presidents contemplating reckless invasions in hot spots around the world.

Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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