Leaving Saigon again

Leaving Baghdad would not be leaving Saigon.

GWB, 22 August:

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities. Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America.

The mental picture is apparently that as the last Americans are choppered out from the Baghdad Embassy, al Qaeda take over. Bin Laden moves in, declares himself the heir of the Abbasid Caliphs, and, drawing on Iraq’s oil wealth, launches a new wave of attacks on the USA. Happy jihadist days would be here again.

Where to begin with this fantasy? If the US quits tomorrow, foreign Sunni jihadists could declare victory, but would then run for their lives: most Iraqi Sunnis would like to kill them fast, the Shias would rather kill them slowly. OSL could declare victory too, but so what? He would have lost his biggest recruiting message, and the feebleness, corruption and incompetence of the American government need no further evidence.

There’s another likely consequence of this “victory” that would crimp OSL’s propaganda. The Sunni insurgency are crushed by the Shia militias, with unrestrained violence – as many Fallujahs as it takes. At best the Sunni Arabs would stay on in Iraq as a powerless, tolerated minority. At worst radical Shia ethnically cleanse central Iraq, and three or four million flee as refugees to neighbouring Sunni states. This could spark a regional war, with horrible and unpredictable consequences. Even if it didn’t, the refugees would form a large constituency for revanchist political terrorism, like the Palestinians before them. They could attack the United States, but for a reason.

It seems to me the only attainable political objective left for the US in Arab Iraq is to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis by Shia radicals. It’s a political, not a military one, and requires diplomacy, threats and promises, with Iraqi Shia leaders. Democracy? That’s achieved, sort of – on the Iranian model. The Kurds have already won their independence de facto; the US needs to mediate some face-saving not-quite-a-state formula to appease Turkey, like UN trusteeship. Update 2 August It also needs to broker a deal on Kirkuk. Difficult, but again, a diplomatic not a military problem.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web