LOS ANGELES — As Barack Obama’s administration debates the pace and consequences of withdrawal from Iraq, it would do well to examine the strategic impact of other American exits in the final decades of the 20th century. Although American commitments to Lebanon, Somalia, Vietnam and Cambodia differed mightily, history reveals that despite immediate costs to America’s reputation, disengagement ultimately redounded to America’s advantage.

In all of these cases, regional stability of sorts emerged after an American military withdrawal, albeit at the cost of a significant loss of life. America’s former adversaries either became preoccupied with consolidating or sharing power, suffered domestic defeat, or confronted neighboring states. Ultimately, America’s vital interests prevailed. The evidence today suggests that this pattern can be repeated when the United States departs Iraq and leaves Iraqis to define their own fate.

Of the four withdrawals, arguably the 1982-1984 American intervention in Lebanon marks the closest parallel to Iraq today. A country torn by sectarian violence beginning in 1975, Lebanon pitted an even more complex array of contestants against each other than Iraq does today.

Into this fray stepped the U.S. and its Western allies. Their objective was to create a military buffer between the PLO and Israeli forces that were then fighting in Beirut in order to promote the departure of both. The massacres in Palestinian refugee camps prompted a new commitment to “restore a strong and central government” to Lebanon, to quote President Ronald Reagan. But the result of intervention was that U.S. forces became just one more target, culminating in the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks that killed 241 American soldiers.

In February 1984, facing a quagmire, Reagan acceded to Vice President George H.W. Bush’s recommendation to get out of Lebanon. But the withdrawal of Western forces did not stop the fighting. The civil war continued for another six years, followed by a bumpy political aftermath: Syrian intervention and expulsion (two decades later), as the Lebanese defined their own fate with the U.S. exercising only background influence.

In 1992, the sirens of Somalia’s political collapse lured the U.S. into another civil war to save a country from itself. The U.S. humanitarian mission to that benighted country sought to salvage a failed United Nations enterprise to secure and feed Somalia’s ravaged population.

The U.S. committed 28,000 troops, which for a time imposed a modicum of security. But ill-equipped and poorly led U.N. replacement forces for the American presence put the remaining U.S. troops in the bull’s eye as they attempted to bring to justice the Somali warlord responsible for the death of Pakistani peacekeepers. The ensuing bloodbath of U.S. soldiers generated images that the American public could not stomach, prompting the exit of American and then U.N. forces.

As unrest mounted with these military retreats, offshore U.S. forces monitored and intercepted jihadists who sought to enter Somalia, while Kenya and Ethiopia blocked the unrest from metastasizing across the region. In 2006, the capture of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, by the Islamic Courts raised the specter of a jihadist state. But Somalia soon demonstrated that quagmires can be a two-way street. Following Ethiopia’s intervention, the Islamists found themselves out of power.

Today, Somalia remains a dysfunctional state, as rival clans, jihadists, and an interim government with Ethiopian support compete for power. The U.S., now out of the quagmire, exercises limited influence from afar.

While Lebanon and Somalia remain damaged and failed states, respectively, regional and domestic factors have cauterized the consequences of America’s retreat from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The result is the stable region that the world sees today. But the U.S. saw things very differently in the 1960s, when the ghosts of Munich hovered over Vietnam’s jungles.

As President George W. Bush argued about the war in Iraq, President Lyndon Johnson predicted that defeat in Vietnam “would be renewed in one country and then another.” What Johnson failed to foresee were the domestic and regional constraints that would prevent the dominoes from falling in the way he predicted.

Although the U.S. bombed northeastern Cambodia intensely throughout the Vietnam War years, it had no stomach for a ground commitment there. Still within congressional restraints, the Nixon administration attempted to bolster Cambodia’s military government. But, despite modest material support, the U.S. could not sustain a government that could not sustain itself.

Rather than the dominoes falling following America’s retreat from Saigon in 1975, a Vietnam-Cambodian war ensued. This in turn stimulated China’s unsuccessful intervention in North Vietnam. The withdrawal by all of these invading armies to the recognized international boundaries demonstrated that nationalist forces were dominant in the region, not communist solidarity.

None of these American exits was without consequence. But, while the U.S. suffered costs to its reputation around the world, the supposed advantages from this for America’s opponents proved illusory.

America’s departure from Mesopotamia will likewise put the burden of problem solving onto Iraqis and other regional players, leaving the U.S. offshore to assist when and where it deems appropriate. History suggests that, in fits and starts, Iraq, like Vietnam and Lebanon, will find itself able to sort out its own affairs.

Bennett Ramberg served in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.