To me, the relentless mud slide of insurgency and civil war in Iraq is leading to unacceptable strategic disaster for the U.S. There appear to be no viable paths to follow in order to avoid it. Neither "staying the course"--whatever that Bush strategy now means--nor the Democrats' idea of exiting by timetables offers a semblance of success. Both approaches produce only nightmares: general chaos; Iraq's center taken over by terrorists emboldened by victory over America, their pockets bulging with Iraqi oil money; southern Iraq controlled by pro-Iranians or Iran itself; and Iraq's neighbors picking at the nation's carcass until regional war erupts and prompts oil prices to hit $150 a barrel.
But while those fears have a real hold on me, I can't help transporting myself back more than 30 years to that day in Vietnam when I felt certain the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and destroy America's strategic position there and elsewhere. I was wrong about those dominoes, as were almost all foreign-policy experts.
It was April 28, 1975. The last U.S. officials scrambled aboard helicopters, bound for home, heralding defeat as North Vietnamese troops tramped into the South Vietnamese capital. And it was the most ignominious kind of defeat, one that came after a decades-long war, after tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese had been killed, after our Presidents had pledged it would never come to that.
We expected China and the Soviet Union would be ascendant, that allies like Japan and South Korea would doubt our resolve and reposition themselves, and that North Vietnam would claim the rest of Indochina. Almost none of that happened.
Three years later, the standing and power of the U.S. in Asia were greater than at any other time since the end of World War II. Our friends and allies in the region were worried about communist ascendancy, as we were, and they all rallied behind us. They understood clearly that their security depended on our presence and power in Asia. And so the dominoes never fell.
Could the consequences of defeat in Iraq not be as bad as we imagine? In the first place, the Arab jihadi terrorists will be more difficult to handle than the North Vietnamese. Hanoi's leaders ran a disciplined country with ambitions limited to Indochina. The jihadi terrorists in Iraq can't be bargained with, and their hatred runs global. Victory in Iraq would embolden them.
But we are not without ways to check their victory, even as we might exit Iraq. We have allies at the ready (the Kurds, the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, etc.) who fear the jihadis as much as we do and potential allies (the Baathists and the Sunni tribal leaders) who want to rule their own piece of Iraq and also fear and despise the jihadis. As we gradually withdraw, we and others could provide Baathists the wherewithal to crush the terrorists. Without a large U.S. military presence, they probably would do a better job of it.
As for Iran's hold on southern Iraq, the risk looms large. But we easily forget that Iraqi Shi'ites are Arabs, not Persians. They have their own pride, traditions and interests. We should stand ready to help these Shi'ites as well.