What did we not hear from President Bush when he spoke last week at the United States Naval Academy about his strategy for victory in Iraq?
We did not hear that the war in Iraq, already one of the costliest wars in American history, is a running sore. We did not hear that it has taken more than 2,000 precious American lives and countless – because we do not count them – Iraqi civilian lives. We did not hear that the struggle has dragged on longer than our involvement in either World War I or the Spanish-American War, or that by next spring it will be even longer than the Korean War.
And we did not hear how or when the president plans to bring our forces back home – no facts, no numbers on America troop withdrawals, no dates, no reference to our dwindling coalition, no reversal of his disdain for the United Nations, whose help he still expects.
Neither our military, our economy nor our nation can take that kind of endless and remorseless drain for an only vaguely defined military and political mission. If we leave early, the president said, catastrophe might follow. But what of the catastrophe that we are prolonging and worsening by our continued presence, including our continued, unforgivable mistreatment of detainees?
Each month that America continues its occupation facilitates Al Qaeda’s recruitment of young Islamic men and women as suicide bombers, the one weapon against which our open society has no sure defense. The president says we should support our troops by staying the course; but who is truly willing to support our troops by bringing them safely home?
The responsibility for devising an exit plan rests primarily not with the war’s opponents, but with the president who hastily launched a pre-emptive invasion without enough troops to secure Iraq’s borders and arsenals, without enough armor to protect our forces, without enough allied support and without adequate plans for either a secure occupation or a timely exit.
As we listened to Mr. Bush’s speech, our thoughts raced back four decades to another president, John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the last year of his life, we watched from front-row seats as Kennedy tried to figure out how best to extricate American military advisers and instructors from Vietnam.
Although neither of us had direct responsibility on Vietnam decision-making, we each saw enough of the president to sense his growing frustration. In typical Kennedy fashion, he would lean back, in his Oval Office rocker, tick off all his options and then critique them:
Renege on the previous Eisenhower commitment, which Kennedy had initially reinforced, to help the beleaguered government of South Vietnam with American military instructors and advisers?
No, he knew that the American people would not permit him to do that.
Americanize the Vietnam civil war, as the military recommended and as his successor Lyndon Johnson sought ultimately to do, by sending in American combat units?
No, having learned from his experiences with Cuba and elsewhere that conflicts essentially political in nature did not lend themselves to a military solution, Kennedy knew that the United States could not prevail in a struggle against a Vietnamese people determined to oust, at last, all foreign troops from their country.
Moreover, he knew firsthand from his World War II service in the South Pacific the horrors of war and had declared at American University in June 1963: “This generation of Americans has had enough – more than enough – of war.”
Declare “victory and get out,” as George Aiken, the Republican senator from Vermont, would famously suggest years later?
No, in 1963 in Vietnam, despite assurances from field commanders, there was no more semblance of “victory” than there was in 2004 in Iraq when the president gave his “mission accomplished” speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Explore, as was always his preference, a negotiated solution?
No, he was unable to identify in the ranks of the disorganized Vietcong a leader capable of negotiating enforceable and mutually agreeable terms of withdrawal.
Insist that the South Vietnamese government improve its chances of survival by genuinely adopting the array of political, economic, land and administrative reforms necessary to win popular support?
No, Kennedy increasingly realized that the corrupt family and landlords propping up the dictatorship in South Vietnam would never accept or enforce such reforms.
Eventually he began to understand that withdrawal was the viable option. From the spring of 1963 on, he began to articulate the elements of a three-part exit strategy, one that his assassination would prevent him from pursuing. The three components of Kennedy’s exit strategy – well-suited for Iraq after the passage of a new constitution and the coming election – can be summarized as follows:
Make clear that we’re going to get out. At a press conference on Nov. 14, 1963, the president did just that, stating, “That is our object, to bring Americans home.”
Request an invitation to leave. Arrange for the host government to request the phased withdrawal of all American military personnel – surely not a difficult step in Iraq, especially after the clan statement last month calling for foreign forces to leave. In a May 1963 press conference, Kennedy declared that if the South Vietnamese government suggested it, “we would have some troops on their way home” the next day.
Bring the troops home gradually. Initiate a phased American withdrawal over an unannounced period, beginning immediately, while intensifying the training of local security personnel, bearing in mind that with our increased troop mobility and airlift capacity, American forces are available without being stationed in hazardous areas. In September 1963, Kennedy said of the South Vietnamese: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.” A month later, he said, “It would be our hope to lessen the number of Americans” in Vietnam by the end of the year.
President Kennedy had no guarantee that any of these three components would succeed. In the “fog of war,” there are no guarantees; but an exit plan without guarantees is better than none at all.
If we leave Iraq at its own government’s request, our withdrawal will be neither abandonment nor retreat. Law-abiding Iraqis may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we leave; but they may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we stay. The president has said we will not leave Iraq to the terrorists. Let us leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who have survived centuries of civil war, tyranny and attempted foreign domination.
Once American troops are out of Iraq, people around the world will rejoice that we have recovered our senses. What’s more, the killing of Americans and the global loss of American credibility will diminish. As Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican and Vietnam veteran, said, “The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.” Defeatist? The real defeatists are those who say we are stuck there for the next decade of death and destruction.
In a memorandum to President Kennedy, roughly three months after his inauguration, one of us wrote with respect to Vietnam, “There is no clearer example of a country that cannot be saved unless it saves itself.” Today, Iraq is an even clearer example.
Theodore C. Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were, respectively, special counsel and special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.
Originally published by the New York Times.