Policy experts parse parallels between wars in Iraq, Vietnam

As President Obama continues to serve his first year in office, much attention centers on his handling of the ongoing situation in Iraq. Last Thursday, Williams students had the chance to hear the disparate perspectives of Fred Logevall and Marc Lynch in a lecture sponsored by the Stanley Kaplan Program in American Foreign Policy. A professor at Cornell University, Logevall specializes in American foreign relations and has authored numerous books on the subject. Lynch is a former professor of political science at the College and currently teaches at George Washington University. He writes the well-known Abu Aardvark blog at ForeignPolicy.com and has advised President Obama on the development of a strategy for Iraq.
Following an introduction from James McAllister, professor of political science, Logevall opened with a comparison of the current situation in Iraq and America’s experience in Vietnam. Discussing the ease of getting into and maintaining short- and medium-term support for limited wars, he drew parallels between the “permissive context” in which each was undertaken and the level of tolerance the public maintained for a certain period of time. He then turned to the difficulty of removing troops from Iraq, arguing that the Vietnam War shows how American commitment to reliability undermines possibilities of withdrawal and how the issues of global credibility and domestic political reaction influence decision-making.
Lynch then followed with an explanation of the conception and content of the new administration’s plan in Iraq and the unknown variables could affect the plan’s execution. Starting fairly early in the campaign, a team of advisors, Lynch included, discussed the idea and implementation of “responsible withdrawal.” Obama appears to have gained broad support for his plan, as evidenced by individuals from both parties seeking to associate themselves with it.
Lynch then outlined several major issues that factored into the construction of the plan and functioned as unknown variables going into the future. He discussed the “pivotal variable” of the Iraqi Security Forces and emphasized their need for more training. He also explored the possibility of an increase in violence and how it might discourage the administration from sticking to its withdrawal deadline, warning against the pitfalls of wavering. In examining the country’s political future, he emphasized the need for political consensus and pointed out that no decision has ever gone through the Iraqi Parliament without American guidance and pressure. He also stressed the danger of Arab-Kurdish tensions, saying sectarian violence “pales before” such a conflict. He concluded with three key points for Obama as he moves forward: to think in regional terms, paying particular attention to Iran; to focus on Iraqi leadership; and to preserve the domestic consensus he appears to have succeeded in building.
Following the talks, Lynch and Logevall jointly took audience questions that ranged from historical parallels to regional politics.