Saving Face and How to Say Farewell

Even in the absence of a sudden and dramatic shift on the battlefield toward a definitive victory, there may still be a slight opening, as narrow as the eye of a needle, for the United States to slip through and leave Iraq in the near future in a way that will not be remembered as a national embarrassment. Henry S. Rowen comments in the New York Times.

In the old popular song about the rout by Americans at New Orleans during the War of 1812, the British "ran so fast the hounds couldn't catch 'em." Even allowing for patriotic hyperbole, it can hardly be argued that the British extricated themselves with a great deal of dignity, particularly given that another battle in the same war inspired the American national anthem.

The impact of that defeat on the British national psyche is now obscure, but nearly two centuries later, as the Americans and their British allies seek to extricate themselves from Iraq, the story of how a superpower looks for a dignified way out of a messy and often unpopular foreign conflict has become a historical genre of sorts. As the pressure to leave Iraq increases, that genre is receiving new and urgent attention.

And in the shadow of the bleak and often horrific news emerging from Iraq nearly every day, historians and political experts are finding at least a wan hope in those imperfect historical analogies. Even in the absence of a sudden and dramatic shift on the battlefield toward a definitive victory, there may still be a slight opening, as narrow as the eye of a needle, for the United States to slip through and leave Iraq in the near future in a way that will not be remembered as a national embarrassment.

Most of the recent parallels do not seem to offer much encouragement for a confounded superpower that wants to save face as it cuts its losses and returns home. Among them are the wrenching French pullout from Algeria, the ill-fated French and American adventures in Vietnam, the Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan and the disastrous American interventions in Beirut and Somalia.

Still, there are a few stories of inconclusive wars that left the United States in a more dignified position, including the continuing American presence in South Korea and the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. But even those stand in stark contrast to the happier legacy of total victory during World War II.

The highly qualified optimism of these experts about what may still happen in Iraq - let's call it something just this side of hopelessness - has been born of many factors, including greatly reduced expectations of what might constitute not-defeat there. The United States already appears willing to settle - as if it were in a relationship that had gone sour but cannot quite be resolved by a walk out the door, punctuated with a satisfying slam.

Alongside the dampening of hopes, there has also been a fair amount of historical revisionism regarding the darker tales of conflicts past: a considered sense that if the superpowers had made different decisions, things could have turned out more palatably, and that they still might in Iraq.

Maybe not surprisingly, Vietnam is the focus of some of the most interesting revisionism, including some of it immediately relevant to Iraq, where the intensive effort to train Iraqi security forces to defend their own country closely mirrors the "Vietnamization" program in South Vietnam. If Congress had not voted to kill the financing for South Vietnam and its armed forces in 1975, argues Melvin R. Laird in a heavily read article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Saigon might never have fallen.

"Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975," wrote Mr. Laird, who was President Nixon's defense secretary from 1969 to 1973, when the United States pulled its hundreds of thousands of troops out of Vietnam.

In an interview, Mr. Laird conceded that the American departure from Vietnam was not a pretty sight. "Hell, the pictures of them getting in those helicopters were not good pictures," he said, referring to the chaotic evacuation of the American embassy two years after Vietnamization was complete, and a year after Nixon resigned. But on the basis of his what-if about Vietnam, Mr. Laird does not believe that all is lost in Iraq.

"There is a dignified way out, and I think that's the Iraqization of the forces over there," Mr. Laird said, "and I think we're on the right track on that."

Many analysts have disputed the core of that contention, saying that large swaths of the Iraqi security forces are so inept they may never be capable of defending their country against the insurgents without the American military backing them up. But Mr. Laird is not alone in his revisionist take and its potential application to Iraq.

William Stueck, a history professor at the University of Georgia who has written several books on Korea, calls himself a liberal but says he buys Mr. Laird's basic analysis of what went wrong with Vietnamization.

Korea reveals how easy it is to dismiss the effectiveness of local security forces prematurely, Mr. Stueck said. In 1951, Gen. Matthew Ridgeway felt deep frustration when Chinese offensives broke through parts of the line defended by poorly led South Korean troops.

But by the summer of 1952, with intensive training, the South Koreans were fighting more effectively, Mr. Stueck said. "Now, they needed backup" by Americans, he said. By 1972, he said, South Korean troops were responsible for 70 percent of the front line.

Of course, there are enormous differences between Iraq and Korea. Korean society was not riven by troublesome factions, as Iraq's is, and the United States was defending an existing government rather than trying to create one from scratch.

Another intriguing if imperfect lesson can be found in Algeria, said Matthew Connelly, a Columbia University historian. There, by March 1962, the French had pulled out after 130 years of occupation.

That long colonial occupation, and the million European settlers who lived there before the bloody exodus, are major differences with Iraq, Mr. Connelly noted. But there were also striking parallels: the insurgency, which styled its cause as an international jihad, broke down in civil war once the French pulled out; the French, for their part, said theirs was a fight to protect Western civilization against radical Islam.

Like President Bush in Iraq, President Charles de Gaulle probably thought he could settle Algeria in his favor by military means, Dr. Connelly said. In the short run, that turned out to be a grave miscalculation, as the occupation crumbled under the insurgency's viciousness.

Over the long run, though, history treated de Gaulle kindly for reversing course and agreeing to withdraw, Mr. Connelly said. "De Gaulle loses the war but he wins in the realm of history: he gave Algeria its independence," he said. "How you frame defeat, that can sometimes give you a victory."

The Americans in Beirut and the Soviets in Afghanistan are seen, even in the long view, as cases of superpowers paying the price of blundering into a political and social morass they did not understand.

For the Soviets, that mistake was compounded when America outfitted Afghan rebels with Stinger missiles capable of taking down helicopters, nullifying a key Soviet military superiority. "I don't think they had a fig leaf of any kind," said Henry Rowen, a fellow at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford who was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1989 to 1991. "They just left."

In Beirut, the Americans entered to protect what they considered a legitimate Christian-led government and ended up, much as in Iraq, in the middle of a multipronged civil conflict. In October 1983, a suicide attack killed 241 American servicemen at a Marines barracks, and four months after that, with Muslim militias advancing, President Ronald Reagan ordered the remaining marines withdrawn to ships off the coast, simply saying their mission had changed. The episode has been cited by Vice President Dick Cheney as an example of a withdrawal that encouraged Arab militants to think the United States is weak.

Today, even as expectations for Iraq keep slipping, some measure of victory can still be declared even in a less-than-perfect outcome, said Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia. For example, he said, an Iraqi government that is authoritarian but not totalitarian might have to do.

The key point, he said, is that under those circumstances, the outcome "doesn't look like a disaster even if it doesn't look good."