The defeat that would be a disaster

November 25, 2006

… or musings on a potential apocalypse.

The world is now at the point when it must seriously contemplate the consequences of the US suffering defeat in Iraq – and probably also, by extension, in Afghanistan.

Since the war in Iraq commenced in 2003, parallels have often been drawn with Vietnam: an intractable insurgency, an un-winnable war, a quagmire. But the true analogy with Vietnam has only emerged in the recent weeks, with the Congressional elections in the US which returned the Democrats to power in both houses. And the true analogy is not with the US’ entry into the war nor the conduct of it but rather the manner of its departure.

In early 1974 the US forced a reluctant South Vietnam to sign up to the Paris Peace Accords negotiated during the months prior, and subsequently commenced a unilateral withdrawal of all US forces from Vietnam. The Accord committed both parties to the peaceful pursuit of re-unification (that is, the North should not invade the South), and the US to provide military support to its ally in the event that it did. The North did invade, after testing the US’ resolve with an exploratory attack on the province of Phuoc Lan. A full scale invasion was approved by Hanoi when the US failed to respond, culminating in the fall of the South and the surrender of Saigon. President Ford (who had succeeded the disgraced Nixon) was prevented from fulfilling the US’ side of the bargain by the passage by the Democrat-controlled Congress of legislation that cut off funding for all military support to the South. The defeat of South Vietnam followed as an inevitable consequence.

By now the narrative should be sounding familiar. The US government embroiled in a war that had become deeply unpopular; the public weary of ever-rising casualties with no seeming way out of the military morass; a hostile Congress elected on a wave of anti-war sentiment; and, finally, the US abandoning its erstwhile allies to their fate, ignoring their objections and pleas for help.

This is the nightmare we now face in Iraq. For 30 years the US has agonized over the consequences of its defeat in Vietnam. The consequences of similarly losing Iraq will be inestimably worse.

We can’t know what will happen if the US precipitately withdraws, but we can guess. There will be an orgy of unrestrained, indiscriminate violence. Following that, Iraq will fracture along sectarian lines, with separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves. There would likely be forced migrations and expulsions from ethnically or religiously mixed areas, and huge numbers of refugees. There will be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of deaths. Iran will assume de facto leadership of the Shia enclave, and any prospect of curtailing its nuclear weapons program will end. Iran will be nuclear armed within a few years. Turkey, meanwhile, will make good on its threats never to allow the creation of a Kurdish state along its border, and will attack the oil-rich Kurdish enclave. Violence of the most extreme kind will stretch out for years.

But bad as the results would be for Iraq, they would be catastrophic for the US and the west. Al Qaeda in Iraq is already claiming victory over the Coalition. It will not negotiate any kind of settlement to cover a US disengagement, nor will the various insurgent groups. So there will be no Kissinger-engineered Paris Accord-type fig leaf to give the withdrawal respectability: it will look exactly what is; defeat followed by flight. In a word, a rout.

And this reversal of the greatest military power on earth will have been achieved by….whom? Rag tag and bobtail militias and terrorists, with few heavy weapons, some mortars, and no tanks or aircraft. In the main, just small arms, RPGs, IEDs and an unquenchable appetite for death, whether that of others, or their own. These adversaries inflicted only relatively minor casualties on Coalition forces (a tiny fraction of the US’ losses in Vietnam) despite their indiscriminate use of terrorist tactics, which preferred the softer targets of Iraqi civilians, police and soldier trainees whom they managed to kill in much greater numbers. To defeat the US it is not necessary to kill actual US soldiers; it suffices to kill an unlimited number of Iraqis.

Let’s say, then, that the US is defeated in Iraq, or that it withdraws under circumstances that can plausibly be represented as a defeat. By now, America is almost universally hated in the Middle East and the Gulf, not only for what it is, or rather what it is imagined to be, but because of its support for the equally hated Israel, the interloper state in the Muslim heartland. Parts of Europe are not far behind in their manifestation of these hatreds. But for the moment the US is still feared. If it accepts defeat at the hands of the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, it will be despised with equal vehemence. With contempt, the force of fear will be lost. No-one in the region – and perhaps indeed the world – will ever have cause to fear the USA again, because no-one will take seriously its admonitions, its lectures, its pleas or its threats. If mayhem follows a withdrawal from Iraq, as is likely – say, the Turks begin to slaughter the Kurds – the US will be unable to do anything about it. It huge military might and the prowess of its troops will have been neutered by its political timidity.

Jihadists everywhere will be hugely heartened and emboldened. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s boastings – at this stage merely vainglory – will take on a new, convincing and persuasive ring. Jihad is already running like wildfire through Europe, with new murder plots seemingly uncovered every few weeks. This spread will be fed and watered by a jihadist victory in Iraq. If militant Islam can trounce the unbelieving US, having already (in the jihadists’ eyes at least) seen off the old Soviet Union, then Islam will appear invincible and the time surely near for the institution of the true, global caliphate and the subjugation of the entire world to Allah. So runs the ideology of jihad. Moderate Islamic states and communities, struggling with modernity and secularization, will be threatened or overwhelmed.

General John Abizaid, the US supreme commander in the Middle East, has already warned that the west stands on the brink of a Third World War in its attempts to roll back international terrorism. It is arguably the case that the west is already engaged upon that conflict; but a jihadist victory in Iraq will remove all doubt. Yet the west will find itself ill-equipped to fight that war, let alone win it.

For the west, partly but by no means solely as a result of the war in Iraq itself, is morally weakened, perhaps even crippled. Virulent anti-Americanism, which both Tony Blair and John Howard have rightly characterized as a kind of madness, has swept though the liberal elites. To it is now joined a loathing of Israel and an eagerness to believe the worst of the Jews that reflects the worst excesses of the classic anti-Semitic fantasists. The fantasies now readily entertained in the west – anciently, of course, on the far right, but increasingly by the mainstream left – are the very ones to which the jihadis themselves cleave, for whom they are articles of faith. To say the very least, this narrowing of the moral distance between ourselves and our enemies is deeply disturbing. The jihadis must feel immensely encouraged to find their own sentiments so closely mirrored in the very visible, and very noisy, activist communities of the west.

At the same time, the liberal elites, even outside the activist enclaves, are reluctant to believe that terrorism constitutes a real threat. A few months ago, John Reid, the UK Home Secretary, rounded on the media, the commentariat and the judiciary with the angry accusation that when it came to terrorism, they ‘just did not get it’. The press responded with predictable outrage. And yet, a short time later, when dozens of suspected terrorists were arrested in connection with a heinous plot to blow up airliners with liquid chemicals on the transatlantic route, the response was one of vast skepticism. The Comment is Free section of the UK’s Guardian newspaper ran hundreds of comments on the matter: almost all proclaimed the arrests to be a government ploy timed divert attention from the government’s position on the war in Lebanon, or were bogus for some other dark, nefarious reason. Similar sentiments were expressed across the Australian blogosphere.

This points to another element of the west’s moral decay: the loss of faith among influential sections of the liberal elites in the institutions of their own democracy. Such folk seem to have no difficulty in believing that hundreds of police, security officials, public servants, ministers and foreign governments could be suborned in this way; that an investigation spanning many continents and lasting well over a year could somehow be concocted on the instant to get the Prime Minister off the hook. Such things do not happen in democracies, as any one familiar with the machinery of government could attest. But for many of their citizens, it seems, they do. Of the conspiracy theories about the events of 9/11 the less said the better, but they point even more strongly in the same direction.

The west’s defences against terrorism are already weak. Indeed, they are visibly weakening as confused governments struggle to respond to a threat they would rather not acknowledge. It’s all too wrenching: it brings out the demons, the existential tensions residing in concepts like ethnicity, sexuality, multi-culturalism, immigration and freedom, all of which, furthermore, have to be confronted in the infinitely dangerous context of converging civilizational values. We are poorly equipped to deal with large groups of unacculturated and unacculturable individuals within our communities, either on our terms or on theirs. Consider how the murder of a single person – Theo Van Gogh – by an Islamic extremist convulsed and traumatized the Netherlands, and precipitated the fall, even at a remove of years, of the until recently current government. Or consider how badly the Sydney beach communities behaved at Cronulla last year, but also how bad was the behaviour that provoked them.

Against that systemic weakness, it remains to be seen how the west, which is at once global terrorism’s principal target and (of necessity) its most bitter opponent, will respond to the threat of a jihadism immeasurably energized and enriched by an incontinent withdrawal from Iraq. If, that is, the US allows that to happen.

Will history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as catastrophe? We can only wait until January, when the US Congress will decide.


  1. A good article Rob. It’s good to see the Euston Manifesto logo on your site as well. You should also take a look at the Henry Jackson Society in the UK if you have not already done so.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I’ll check it out.

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