Vietnam Lessons Could Shape Iraq Exit

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The question of how best to walk away from Iraq is on the minds of Americans. President Bush wants to hand more of the conflict to Iraqis; many of his opponents simply want out. Lessons learned from Vietnam might shed some light on exiting Iraq — decision-makers from back then are serving in the current administration.

STEVE INSKEEP: Here's a question on the minds of many American officials; it's the question of how best to walk away from a war. President Bush wants eventually to hand more of the conflict in Iraq over to Iraqis. Many of his opponents simply want out. And each options has its critics who warn about disastrous consequences.

NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel recalls the last time that Americans faced such decisions, which was when, Ted?

TED KOPPEL: Well, I guess the last - we've had so many of them, Steve. The last time may have been in Somalia. Before that we had Lebanon. And before that, of course, we had Vietnam. And Vietnam was the big one. And you can find people expressing both the points of view that you alluded to, referring back to Vietnam. Those who want to say we can't get out precipitously point to the million or more people they say lost their lives in the blood bath after the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia. Those who say we've got to get out say, look, we could have gotten out a lot earlier. We never should have gotten in in the first place.

INSKEEP: Now, there were some people who were involved in a debate then, and the government then, who are familiar names now.

KOPPEL: Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, absolutely.

INSKEEP: Kissinger was secretary of state. Cheney was a senior White House aide. Donald Rumsfeld, by the way, the former secretary of defense, was the White House chief of staff in this period, 1974, '75...

KOPPEL: Indeed he was. And these are - all three of them are men who believe quite firmly that the most dangerous thing in world is to have the last remaining superpower not act like a superpower, give our adversaries and our enemies the sense that the United States can be pushed out of these places.

I remember very well being with Henry Kissinger back in the early mid-'70s on one of his famous shuttle flights in the Middle East, and we'd just come out of Damascus. And the then president of Syria, President Assad, had said to him, look, you guys are going to leave Vietnam, and one of these days you guys are going to desert the Israelis too. And Kissinger's point - and I assume Cheney and Rumsfeld's point - would be if in fact we can be driven out of Iraq, then the feeling will be that the United States' word and commitment is meaningless.

INSKEEP: Can we remember briefly that in Vietnam, the U.S. attempted to stop the war without victory but also without conceding defeat, something short of victory? That didn't work out, I guess.

KOPPEL: It didn't work out. And of course when the North Vietnamese realized that the United States was pulling out and that Congress would not let the president resume the bombing, the agreement that had been more or less reached with the North Vietnamese went right down the tube, and the North Vietnamese took over the whole country.

INSKEEP: So now what are basic requirements then for the United States to withdraw from a conflict, given the demands of being the last superpower?

KOPPEL: Well, first of all, there is a huge difference between the strategic interests that we had in Southeast Asia. That was back at a time when the initial belief was that there was a unilateral communist power in the world, that the communist Chinese and the communist Soviets were as one. And we were most worried that that communist power would start toppling the dominoes westward. That turned out to be completely untrue.

Then, however, we have the example of the Persian Gulf, and what would happen if we pulled out precipitously from Iraq, and if everything blows up and the Iranians move in and the Saudis move in, that could drastically affect the price of the energy and is not as inconsequential to American interests as the withdrawal from Vietnam turned out to be.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel, thanks very much.

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