In November 2008, the governments of the United States and Iraq agreed that U.S. troops would leave Iraq by 2011 -- eight years after the U.S. invasion. For some, this is much too soon. These critics argue that events on the ground, not an artificial deadline, should govern the pullout and that, in any case, a residual force should remain for decades.
But as Washington ponders how long to stay in Iraq, it would do well to examine the strategic impact of the United States' withdrawal from other conflict-riven countries: Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, and Somalia in the 1990s. Even though Washington's commitment to these situations differed in its degree, disengagement eventually proved to be the right policy for the United States. Abandonment damaged Washington's credibility at first, but it was the best way to protect U.S. interests in the long run. The dominoes did not fall after the United States left Southeast Asia; Moscow did not fill the power vacuum in Lebanon; Washington has been largely unaffected by the failed state of Somalia. In each case, after the United States exited, its adversaries became preoccupied with consolidating power and embroiled themselves in conflicts with neighboring countries. A regional stability of sorts emerged, leaving Washington's vital interests intact. For the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia, U.S. withdrawal may have been a mixed blessing. But from the United States' perspective, the costs of withdrawal were less than those of staying and lower than what had been feared.
Extensive, long-term nation building paid off in Germany and Japan after 1945. But Iraq is different. Divided and unstable, it has more in common with Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Somalia. It is those who make the case for staying in Iraq who bear the burden of proving why history would unfold differently this time.
INTERVENING IN INDOCHINA
It was the ghosts of Munich, Yalta, and Beijing's fall to Mao that lured the United States into Vietnam's
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