As the administration of incoming US president Barack Obama debates the pace and consequences of withdrawal from Iraq, it would do well to examine the strategic impact of other US exits in the final decades of the twentieth century. Although US commitments to Lebanon, Somalia, Vietnam, and Cambodia differed mightily, history reveals that despite immediate costs to the US’ reputation, disengagement ultimately redounded to its advantage. In all of these cases, regional stability of sorts emerged after a US military withdrawal, albeit at the cost of a significant loss of life.
The US’ former adversaries either became preoccupied with consolidating or sharing power, suffered domestic defeat, or confronted neighboring states. Ultimately, the US’ vital interests prevailed. The evidence today suggests that this pattern can be repeated when the US departs Mesopotamia and leaves Iraqis to define their own fate.
Of the four withdrawals, arguably the 1982 to 1984 US 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 Palestine Liberation Organization 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 then-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 US soldiers.
A similar suicide bombing two days later claimed the lives of 58 French 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 US exercising only background influence.
In 1992, the sirens of Somalia’s political collapse lured the US into another civil war to save a country from itself. The US humanitarian mission to that benighted country sought to salvage a failed UN enterprise to secure and feed Somalia’s ravaged population.
The US committed 28,000 troops, which for a time imposed a modicum of security. But ill-equipped and poorly led UN replacement forces for the US presence put the remaining US 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 US soldiers generated images that the American public could not stomach, prompting the exit of the US and then UN forces.
As unrest mounted with these military retreats, offshore US 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.