Peter Rodman and William Shawcross had an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday that was staggeringly mendacious even for neo-conservatives.
First, we have the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer defense, which in this case amounts to a “I am but a simple dirty hippie, and yet even I can understand that we shouldn’t withdraw from Iraq”:
Many years ago, the two of us clashed sharply over the wisdom and morality of American policy in Indochina, especially in Cambodia.
The point of this is to provide the illusion that the two authors come from substantially different viewpoints, yet have been forced to agree by the overwhelming obviousness of the position they wish to argue. It’s a lie; Shawcross, a much celebrated yousta bee, wrote a book justifying the launching of the war, and Rodman was an assistant Secretary of Defense from 2001 until last March.
Next, we get the dire consequences of US withdrawal from Vietnam:
The 1975 Communist victory in Indochina led to horrors that engulfed the region. The victorious Khmer Rouge killed one to two million of their fellow Cambodians in a genocidal, ideological rampage. In Vietnam and Laos, cruel gulags and “re-education” camps enforced repression. Millions of people fled, mostly by boat, with thousands dying in the attempt.
On Cambodia, the authors conveniently ignore that the American bombing of Cambodia that strengthened and enabled the Khmer Rouge, that the US tolerated the Khmer Rouge for balance of power reasons during the Killing Fields period, and that the Khmer Rouge were finally chased back to the jungle only when the Vietnamese People’s Army decided to invade. Other than those elements, the Killing Fields were all the fault of dirty hippies. The authors also forget or intentionally obscure the fact that predictions about a genocidal Red reign of terror over a prostrate South Vietnam never materialized; the North Vietnamese were quite brutal and oppressive, driving out even many of their erstwhile South Vietnamese supporters, but their behavior was tame compared with the dramatic predictions that were made in the US prior to the conquest. Moreover, there’s no evaluation of the costs of remaining in the war; how many Vietnamese died in the eight years of US intervention that otherwise would have survived?
It gets worse:
The defeat had a lasting and significant strategic impact. Leonid Brezhnev trumpeted that the global “correlation of forces” had shifted in favor of “socialism,” and the Soviets went on a geopolitical offensive in the third world for a decade. Their invasion of Afghanistan was one result. Demoralized European leaders publicly lamented Soviet aggressiveness and American paralysis.
I’m almost impressed with this. You’d think, given that the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, that Rodman and Shawcross would be embarrassed to make the “but we’ll lose the Cold War if we leave Vietnam” argument. You’d be wrong; there’s really no limit to the nonsense they’re willing to spout. The assertion that the US withdrawal from Vietnam precipitated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is fortunately evidence-free, since any effort to provide evidence would have foundered on the sharp rocks of reality. Given that the Soviet invasion ended disastrously, and in pretty much the same manner as Vietnam, I’m kind of surprised that Rodman and Shawcross even think it was a bad thing. “Demoralized” European leaders had been opposed to the US intervention in Vietnam almost to an individual, and to the extent they lamented American paralysis blamed it on the insistence of the United States to get itself embroiled in a distant, expensive, colonial sideshow at the expense of Europe, where the real action was. Moreover, the “demoralization” produced no notable behavioral consequences.
And despite the defeat in 1975, America’s 10 years in Indochina had positive effects. Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister of Singapore, has well articulated how the consequences would have been worse if the United States had not made the effort in Indochina. “Had there been no U.S. intervention,” he argues, the will of non-communist countries to resist communist revolution in the 1960s “would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist.” The domino theory would have proved correct.
Well, if Lee Kwan Yew asserts it to be the case, then it must be true. This is another evidence-free assertion, and given that there’s no notable indication that any state that didn’t go communist (Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia) would have gone communist in the absence of US action, I have my doubts. Moreover, the rest of the world gave up on the whole “unified front of communism” thing in 1960; perhaps someone should forward the memo to Shawcross and Rodman.
Today, in Iraq, there should be no illusion that defeat would come at an acceptable price. George Orwell wrote that the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. But anyone who thinks an American defeat in Iraq will bring a merciful end to this conflict is deluded. Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamist extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate. Perhaps that is why so much of the current debate seeks to ignore these consequences.
What is it with right-wing hackery and Orwell? Am I wrong in thinking that Orwell would be spinning in his grave if he knew he were being used, so consistently, in such a fashion (Christopher Hitchens is an entirely separate problem)? Anyway, it would have been helpful if Shawcross and Rodman had grappled with the fact that countries don’t just “choose” defeat; defeat often chooses them. It’s not enough simply to say that we have to win; in 1918, Germany “had to win”, just as in 1945 Japan “had to win”. If we can’t win, then we do nothing but exacerbate the “likely human and strategic costs [that] are appalling to contemplate”. US action has already, by the best estimates we have, led to the deaths of three quarters of a million Iraqis, plus untold damage to Iraq’s physical and health infrastructure. Anything we do will produce costs; you have to make a case that some courses of action are less costly than others.
Our conduct in Iraq is a crucial test of our credibility, especially with regard to the looming threat from revolutionary Iran. Our Arab and Israeli friends view Iraq in that wider context. They worry about our domestic debate, which had such a devastating impact on the outcome of the Vietnam War, and they want reassurance.
When government officials argued that American credibility was at stake in Indochina, critics ridiculed the notion. But when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he and his colleagues invoked Vietnam as a reason not to take American warnings seriously. The United States cannot be strong against Iran — or anywhere — if we accept defeat in Iraq.
I’ve written about this before; it takes a truly impressive suspension of disbelief to think that the eight years and immense costs it required the Vietnamese to throw the Americans out were viewed by Saddam Hussein as a “plus” factor for his invasion of Kuwait. Moreover, since our “Arab friends” have not-quite-but-almost uniformally denounced the US occupation of Iraq as illegal, immoral, etc., I’m not sure that the domestic debate is really the problem.
In the end, Rodman and Shawcross don’t really have much of an argument. They toss out a series of justification for staying (“think of the Iraqi children!”, “think of Al-Qaeda!”, “think of our reputation!”) that are dismayingly similar to the shotgun-style initial justification for the war (“War on Iraq: It’s everywhere you want to be!” When I read pieces like this, it reminds me how happy I am that I’m not a conservative; I can advocate policies that I prefer without simply making shit up.