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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All Alone With the Iraq Dilemma

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For the people of the United States, Jan. 27 became a day of protest against the war in Iraq. Media commentators compared the anti-war demonstrations in Washington with earlier rallies against the Vietnam War. And with veterans of those 1960s and 1970s demonstrations on hand, the sense of deja vu was heightened. Another parallel with the 1960s was the presence of a youth group called Students for a Democratic Society. During the Vietnam War, a group by the same name was a leading force in the pacifist movement.

But obvious parallels between events in Vietnam and Iraq should not obscure their just-as-significant differences.

First of all, the Vietnam War was imposed upon the United States by the Democratic Party, but it was the Republican Party that ultimately pulled out of the war. And although the conservative Republicans were generally more inclined to solve problems by use of force, internal crises in President Richard Nixon's administration coupled with increasing problems related to the Vietnam War forced a retreat. The Republicans could not fight a war on both the Asian and domestic fronts. The decision to get out of Vietnam while pursuing detente with the Soviet Union enabled Republicans to consolidate their position at home (although the fallout from Watergate doomed them in the next presidential election).

This time, the U.S. public is demanding that the Democrats stop a war started by the Republicans. This has never happened before: Contrary to common belief, most wars in U.S. history have been initiated by Democratic administrations. Modern Democrats are known for their indecisiveness, which makes it difficult for them to enact radical changes mid-course. Furthermore, no such alternative direction is available to them at present. The decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq will require greater resolution and courage than the choice to start the war. Machiavelli wrote that wars are usually launched by choice, but their end is often the result of external circumstances. To acknowledge a shameful defeat is harder than deciding to attack a small country.

The main problem the United States faces today is, strangely enough, putting an end to the Cold War. By pulling out of Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the United States turned the region over to its geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union. As difficult as this may have been to stomach, at least the United States had a fairly predictable enemy in the Soviet Union and points of conflict could be worked out through negotiation. It was natural for the two countries to pursue detente, given U.S. problems in Asia and the Soviet Union's slipping influence in the Middle East. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire complicated matters by brining new instability in Africa, but even here the two superpowers were motivated by a desire to keep the situation under control. In short, it was the beginning of an era of diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Now there is not a single geopolitical rival or partner to which the United States can turn to help settle these international problems. Today, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely to generate chaos, unpredictability and a power vacuum in the region. Accepting such a state of affairs is much more difficult than it would be to hand control of the territory to another superpower.

A U.S. decision to pull out will be dramatic for the people of Iraq as well. But sooner or later such a decision will have to be made. When the U.S. forces leave Baghdad, they will leave behind a catastrophe. Unfortunately, the catastrophe will be even greater if they stay too long.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.