Over two and a half years after the war in Iraq began, the debate surrounding its justification and future rages stronger than ever. On Nov. 17, Democratic congressman John Murtha stirred the passions of his fellow Washingtonians with a speech on the House floor. White House spokesman Scott McClellan compared Murtha to Michael Moore while Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, who seems about as dim as her political future, went for the jugular, ironically hiding behind a marine to label the decorated Vietnam veteran a coward.
Murtha argued that it is “time to bring [the troops] home,” later clarifying that his recommended pullout would take six months. One need not travel to Iraq, as Murtha recently did, to recognize the challenges facing American forces. But a hasty withdrawal will only satisfy the emotional reactions of Murtha and his supporters and no one else.
There are no easy or quick fixes for the carnage and violence that victimize Iraqis and American soldiers. But the withdrawal issue’s complexity has historical parallels upon which policymakers can draw, specifically in the area of American policy towards Korea during the late 1940s.
In 1948, America was contemplating another troop withdrawal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, among other key Washington officials, had deemed South Korea strategically unimportant in a general war and Congress was sick of funding an American military presence in the ROK. A debate, albeit largely a one-sided one, weighed the costs and benefits of remaining in Korea. Most agreed it was time for American troops to leave, which they did (with the exception of a token advisory group) by the end of 1949.
But there were some forward-thinking dissenters. A 1948 State Department memorandum to W. Walton Butterworth, the director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs, read: “It must be recognized too that the retention of United States troops in Korea will force the United States to undertake [the] expensive and thankless tasks of combating communist attacks ranging from psychological to guerilla warfare and will confront the United States with problems which are both onerous and burdensome. However, it may be that the failure to face up to these problems in Korea could eventually destroy United States security in the Pacific.”
The argument sounds incredibly pertinent, especially if you replace “Korea” with “Iraq,” “communist” with “terrorist” and “Pacific” with “Middle East.” America failed to face the problems in Korea in 1948, and when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea rolled across the 38th parallel in Soviet tanks on June 24, 1950, policymakers quickly recognized their misjudgments and reassessed American policy toward Korea. There are many holes in this comparison — justification for war, the insurgency, United Nations involvement etc. — but overall it is useful.
On the House floor, Murtha argued, “Our military has accomplished its mission and done its duty. Our military captured Saddam Hussein and captured or killed his closest associates.” In 1945, America defeated Korea’s Japanese occupiers and gradually eliminated the regime’s remnants. But that victory, like the capture of Saddam Hussein, did not accomplish the mission. When American troops departed the Korean peninsula, they left behind a government incapable of defending itself from North Korean aggression — a government that, were it not for American intervention in 1950, may have disappeared entirely. An immediate withdrawal today could have similar repercussions for Iraqi security forces, which most agree are inadequately trained to ensure the Iraqi government’s stability and the Iraqi people’s security. Murtha’s declaration that the military has accomplished its mission is incredibly shortsighted.
Fifty-five years after the Korean War, American troops remain at the behest of the ROK, a symbol of America’s commitment to the country. By initiating the current war, we have made a similar commitment to Iraq. Any withdrawal plan must be the product of dialogue with the Iraqi government and predicated on a further buildup of Iraqi security forces, which the Cairo Declaration made clear. A unilateral abandonment of America’s commitment to Iraq now would repeat the Korean mistake and might “eventually destroy United States security” — not to mention its implications for Iraqis.
Sean Singer is a senior in Berkeley College.