Two months ago, Newsweek published a cover story titled “Obama’s Vietnam.” Afghanistan, the magazine argued, might be an unwinnable war that – like Vietnam – forces Washington into a deadly and embarrassing defeat. But it’s Iraq that’s likely to be Barack Obama’s biggest foreign-policy morass. It’s the Iraq War that has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more – numbers that dwarf anything from the war in Afghanistan. And it’s Iraq that’s about to see a major withdrawal of U.S. troops – and, with their removal, a possible return to the sectarian violence that previously engulfed the country.
What will Obama do when Iraqis start killing each other again? Unlike Afghanistan, where U.S. intervention had the full support of the international community, Iraq was always a solo orchestration, despite the so-called “Coalition of the Willing.” Baghdad is a White House responsibility. And though Obama was elected on an anti-war platform, his timetable for troop withdrawals is already being questioned by U.S. generals. Politics will clash with reality in Iraq. Though Obama promised that most troops will be gone from Iraq by 2011 – a date that coincides with the run-up to the next presidential election – his pledge will come back to haunt him if (as likely) Iraq’s government pleads with him to reverse course. The same thing happened in Vietnam, where – in 1975 – the south’s former president begged Washington for help as the Communist north was set to take Saigon. In his book “The Gamble,” Thomas Ricks warns that Moqtada al-Sadr may be waiting for the minute U.S. troops leave to return to his militaristic ways. And think tanks such as Rand have warned that Sunni militia currently loyal to Washington (because they’re on our payroll) could turn once the United States’ military exits Iraq.
It was George Santayana who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Obama’s Vietnam is squarely in the Middle East, not in the mountainous region that skirts Central Asia.