American Retreats

Los Angeles – As Barack Obama’s incoming 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 twentieth 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 Mesopotamia 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 US 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 US forces became just one more target, culminating in the 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks that killed 241 American soldiers. A similar suicide bombing two days later claimed the lives of 58 French soldiers.