The Courage to Admit Defeat

No one wants to be a loser. In the sports world, some players and fans take losing so seriously that they resort to violence. The same attitude colors our approach to international relations, especially war.

During the Vietnam War, many, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson, knew we were unable to win the conflict, yet they lacked the courage to admit they had lost. They prolonged the war because no one wanted to "cut and run." When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, he claimed to have a plan to get us out of the war. He would bring "peace with honor"; in other words, he would not lose. Since he could not walk away a winner, he escalated the war. To this day, many conservatives believe that we could have won that war if we had tried harder. The New York Times on April 1, 2007, quoted Rep. John Boehner, the minority leader, on the end of the Vietnam War:"We left chaos and genocide in the streets of Vietnam because we pulled the troops out and didn’t have the will to win." Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war for over five years, considers the war in Vietnam to have been a “noble cause.” The U.S could have won the war, he contends, if the president had sent ground forces into North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign.

Today we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. While it is still ostensibly Communist, its leaders have loosened their grip on the people. Would the U.S., Vietnam, or the world as a whole be better off today if we had fought on as McCain and Boehner have recommended? It is hard to see how. We would have lost more young men and women, as would the Vietnamese. Winning presumably would have meant establishing a North Vietnam and a South Vietnam independent of each other. I doubt the separate countries after a longer conflict would be as prosperous as the united country is today. Assuming McCain and Boehner are right that we could have won the war in even that sense – a doubtful proposition – spending another three, four, five, or more years achieving victory would have provided no benefits to the U.S., but many costs.

What does this tell us about the current war in Iraq? Note that we have already lost more of our armed forces (over 3,200 dead) in the first four years of this conflict than we did in the first 10 years for which the U.S. government counts deaths in Vietnam. We cannot win this war, if by "winning" one means creating a unified, democratic, peaceful Iraq with a government friendly to the U.S. Most of the American public would like to see us leave, but without losing. President George Bush plays on this emotion by asserting that we can win if we stay the course. He says setting a definite date for withdrawal is "surrender." If the war is to be lost, which it already is, he wants the acknowledgment of that loss delayed until the next president’s term.

Supporters of the war claim that pulling out will make the United States look weak and encourage others to take advantage of us. This is simply nonsense. Everyone knows the United States military can conquer almost any country; it may find it impossible to pacify the people, but it can defeat any military. Nevertheless, many claim that we cannot afford to show weakness by leaving Iraq. We see the same belief at work in the current standoff between Britain and Iran, in which neither party wants to back down for fear of seeming weak. Thus, both sides escalate the confrontation.

Once Iraq had established a constitution and elected a government, Bush could have announced victory and gone home. Of course, he would have left behind a mounting civil war and an ineffective government unlikely to remain friendly to the U.S. and Israel. He also would have failed to achieve (a) his announced aim of establishing a functioning democracy and (b) his unspoken ambition to build military bases to protect Israel and project U.S. government interests in the Middle East. But the U.S. and Iraq would both be better off today.

Unfortunately, the next president will face the same problem. To pull out is to "lose," and the public is unlikely to support a loser. Who among the presidential candidates has the courage to pull our troops out? Note that most of those running talk in terms of redeployment and try to lay the blame for any failure on the Iraqis. Any future president who does withdraw will suffer a backlash from the bitter-enders. Withdrawal will take courage and the willingness to accept defeat on the battlefield and, most likely, at the ballot box. If we continue to pursue an impossible victory, however, we will face mounting casualties and insurmountable expenses.