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Hither and Yon

WorldTribune.com: Failures in Iraq and Vietnam raise questions about U.S. resolve in Ukraine, East Asia

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Remember the great “surge” of U.S.forces in Iraq that Gen. David Petraeus believed would finish off the bad guys before the U.S. scaled down and then withdrew its forces? It was as though the U.S. wanted to declare a victory and go home.
Anyone would have known that a carefully contrived edifice that relied on American largesse for survival was doomed to crumble after the last of the Americans had pulled out.
The U.S. response to the war in Iraq carries grave implications for U.S. policy from eastern Europe to Northeast Asia. America’s allies and enemies have to be watching carefully.
Will the U.S. wind up rushing to keep the Shi’ite regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on life support in a blitzkrieg of air strikes and operations by elite forces as the country deteriorates in a bonfire of mass killings by Shi’ite and Sunni forces?
It would be comforting to think the two could some day come to terms after centuries of hatred and contempt, but who believes al-Maliki would compromise for a moment with the Sunnis? Nor can anyone believe that the Sunnis, bearing down upon Baghdad, could mount such a strong offensive without Al Qaida terrorists taking charge in a campaign that exposes their cruelty in photogenic horror.
For those thousands of miles away, the onslaught is more than a spectator sport unfolding on television and the Internet. Whatever the U.S. does in Iraq, however President Obama responds, carries grave implications for U.S. policy from eastern Europe to Northeast Asia. The specter of terrorist forces charging down the map of Iraq arouses fears — and bitter memories — for U.S. policy, and U.S. resolve, worldwide.
A decade ago, writing a magazine article about “rebuilding” Iraq while also filing CBS Radio, I remember the mood in Baghdad as if it were yesterday. Pessimism was in the air, but the oil was flowing despite periodic attempts to blow up the pipelines and the sense was maybe, just maybe, the U.S. and U.S.-trained Iraqi forces could make it all work.
Nothing would work, though, if the U.S. was going to withdraw its forces. Now the U.S. has to decide how and when, or whether, to stop the onslaught, to consider the wisdom or folly of shielding an investment that’s cost several thousand American lives, the lives of several hundred thousand Iraqis, and untold billions in arms and aid.
The failure in Iraq rivals that in Vietnam, where I lived and worked, writing thousands of articles and a couple of books. The U.S., war-weary and divided, pulled out its forces under cover of a phony program called “Vietnamization,” refused to arm the South Vietnamese, much less order air strikes, and watched as the North Vietnamese poured south.
What do we make of these failures of U.S. policy? It’s possible to rationalize Vietnam, to say the country is better off united, to argue that the U.S.-fostered regime in Saigon was as corrupt as that in Hanoi and equally contemptuous of human rights.
The implications of what’s happening in Iraq are not so rosy. The Sunni forces that are driving south, in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, including Syria, revive memories of September 11, 2001 — the Al Qaida attacks of 9/11 that touched off the U.S. “war on terror.”
Is President Obama, having failed to support rebel forces in Syria, having forsworn calls for bombing the chemical-warfare facilities of the Assad regime, willing to support the narrowly-Shi’ite regime in Baghdad? And, in the end, will air strikes provide more than a temporary respite while the country falls apart?
These questions assume still greater significance when one considers the choices the U.S. has to make in defense of Ukraine — and, the other side of the Eurasian land mass, the U.S. “pivot” to East Asia.
If the U.S. falters in Iraq, would the U.S. also hesitate to defend South Korea? A North Korean attack, a second Korean War, may appear totally unlikely considering the U.S. security bond to South Korea, but you never know.
Other compelling questions leap to mind: What if North Korea stages its fourth nuclear test and masters the skills to fit a warhead onto a long-range missile? What will the U.S. do in defense of Japan’s grip on the Senkaku Islands, under threat from China, which calls them the Diaoyu?
Would the U.S. defend the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others against Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea? And then there’s Afghanistan, from which the U.S. is also pulling most of its forces. Does anyone believe the U.S.-backed government there can endure while the Taliban gain strength?
What happens next in Iraq — air strikes, terrorist conquest, fragmentation — may provide clues as to American resolve to defend friends and allies everywhere.
Donald Kirk, kirkdon@yahoo.com, last in Iraq a decade ago, covered the Vietnam War and has reported for years from Northeast Asia.
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