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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Leaving Iraq: Take cue from past strategies

Bennett Ramberg

served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration

As Barack Obama's administration debates the pace and consequences of withdrawal from Iraq, it would do well to examine the effect of other American exits. Although U.S. commitments to Lebanon, Somalia, Vietnam and Cambodia differed mightily, history reveals that despite immediate costs to America's reputation, disengagement ultimately redounded to America's advantage.

In all of these cases, regional stability of sorts emerged after a U.S. military withdrawal, albeit at the cost of a significant loss of life. America's former adversaries either became preoccupied with consolidating or sharing power, suffered domestic defeat, or confronted neighboring states. Ultimately, America's vital interests prevailed. The evidence today suggests that this pattern can be repeated when the United States leaves Iraqis to define their own fate.

The 1982-84 intervention in Lebanon marks the closest parallel to Iraq today. A country torn by sectarian violence beginning in 1975, Lebanon pitted an even more complex array of contestants against one another than Iraq does now.

Into this fray stepped the United States and its Western allies. Their objective was to create a military buffer between the PLO and Israeli forces in Beirut in order to promote the departure of both. The massacres in Palestinian refugee camps prompted a new commitment to "restore a strong and central government" to Lebanon, to quote President Ronald Reagan. Instead, Western forces became just one more target, culminating in the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks that killed 241 Americans and a similar suicide bombing two days later that killed 58 French soldiers.

In February 1984, facing a quagmire, Reagan acceded to Vice President George H.W. Bush's recommendation to get out of Lebanon. But the withdrawal of Western forces did not stop the fighting. The civil war continued for six more years, followed by a bumpy political aftermath: Syrian intervention and expulsion (two decades later), as the Lebanese defined their own fate with the United States exercising only background influence.

In 1992, the sirens of Somalia's political collapse lured the United States into another civil war to save a country from itself. The U.S. humanitarian mission sought to salvage a failed United Nations enterprise to secure and feed Somalia's ravaged population.

The United States committed 28,000 troops, which for a time imposed a modicum of security. But ill-equipped and poorly led U.N. replacement forces for the American presence put the remaining U.S. troops in the bull's eye. The ensuing bloodbath generated images that the public could not stomach, prompting the exit of U.S. and then U.N. forces.

As unrest mounted, offshore U.S. forces monitored and intercepted jihadists who sought to enter Somalia, while Kenya and Ethiopia kept the unrest from metastasizing across the region. In 2006, the capture of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, raised the specter of a jihadist state. But quagmires can be a two-way street. Following Ethiopia's intervention, the Islamists were out of power.

Somalia remains a dysfunctional state, as rival clans, jihadists, and an interim government compete for power. The United States exercises limited influence from afar.

Regional and domestic factors have cauterized the consequences of America's retreat from Vietnam and Southeast Asia, resulting in a stable region. But the United States saw things differently in the 1960s.

As President George W. Bush argued about Iraq, President Lyndon Johnson predicted that defeat in Vietnam "would be renewed in one country and then another." What Johnson failed to foresee were the domestic and regional constraints that would prevent the dominoes from falling in the way he predicted.

Although the United States bombed northeastern Cambodia intensely throughout the Vietnam War years, it had no stomach for a ground commitment there. The Nixon administration tried to bolster Cambodia's military government, but the United States could not sustain a government that could not sustain itself.

Rather than the dominoes falling after America's retreat from Saigon in 1975, a Vietnam-Cambodian war ensued. This stimulated China's unsuccessful intervention in North Vietnam. The withdrawal by all of these invading armies to the recognized international boundaries demonstrated that nationalist forces were dominant in the region, not communist solidarity.

None of these exits was without consequence. But, while the United States suffered costs to its reputation, the supposed advantages from this for U.S. opponents proved illusory.

America's departure from Mesopotamia will likewise put the burden of problem-solving onto Iraqis and other regional players, leaving the United States offshore to assist when and where it deems appropriate. History suggests that, in fits and starts, Iraq, like Vietnam and Lebanon, will sort out its own affairs.


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Thai minister to discuss temple dispute in Cambodia

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand's new foreign minister will travel to Cambodia on Sunday for his first official visit, with both neighbours hoping to make progress on resolving a sporadically violent territorial dispute.

A foreign ministry official said that Kasit Piromya would leave for Phnom Penh at 6:55pm (1155 GMT) and arrive back Monday evening, with the disputed land around Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple likely on the agenda.

"The foreign minister will make his first official visit to Cambodia mainly to introduce himself to Cambodia and strengthen relationships between the two countries," a press officer at the ministry said.

"He may ask about or mention some issues such as Preah Vihear... to update information and see the progress of those issues."

A spokesman from Cambodia's foreign ministry told AFP on Thursday that officials including Kasit's counterpart, Hor Namhong, will urge the visiting minister to help broker a peaceful solution as soon as possible.

Troops from Cambodia and Thailand clashed on October 15 on disputed land near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, leaving four soldiers dead.

The Cambodian-Thai border has never been fully demarcated, in part because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.

Tensions flared in July when the cliff-top Khmer temple, which is in Cambodia, was awarded United Nations World Heritage status, rekindling the long-running disagreement.

Troops from both sides have been stationed around the area since then, and negotiations aimed at reaching a solution stalled last year as Thailand was gripped by political turmoil which brought down the previous government.

New Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva named Kasit as foreign minister last month, but he has turned out to be a controversial choice.

Kasit was a vocal supporter of protests which shuttered Bangkok's airports for a week in November and December, and the staunch nationalist also criticised the previous government's handling of the crisis with Cambodia.

Kasit is due to meet Cambodian premier Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihamoni and other high-ranking officials.
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