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Rory O'Connor Headshot

Declaring Victory, Going Home

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Decades ago, while a callow young reporter, I noted favorably that "the late, great Senator George Aiken" had once famously and wisely offered a solution to America's Vietnam quagmire: "Declare victory and go home."

I was wrong on two counts: first, what Aiken -- a conservative Republican who was Vermont's Senator from 1941 to 1975 -- actually said was, "the United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam." He added that such a declaration "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.... It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked."

And second, far from being 'late," Aiken was still alive... A few days later, I was greatly chagrined to receive a note thanking me for remembering him while gently pointing out that he was "not dead yet!"

I was reminded of the incident this week, when Colonel Timothy R. Reese, a senior American military adviser in Baghdad, concluded, in what the putative Paper of Record termed "an unusually blunt memo" wisely offering a solution to America's Iraq quagmire, that it is time "for the U.S. to declare victory and go home."

Unlike Senator Aiken, Colonel Reese's conclusion is late -- but better late than never. It comes at a time when American combat troops have just met a deadline to withdraw from Iraq's cities -- supposedly the first step toward assuming an "advisory role." His memo "details Iraqi military weaknesses in scathing language, including corruption, poor management and the inability to resist Shiite political pressure," the New York Times noted. Reese argued that extending the American military presence beyond August 2010 would do little to help the situation. "As the old saying goes, 'Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,' " he wrote. "Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose."

Unfortunately, while some military officers do endorse Reese's assessment, despite the stench his superiors -- including General Ray Odierno, the senior American commander in Iraq and his Commander in Chief, Barack Obama -- apparently do not. A spokeswoman for Odierno told the Times that the memo did not reflect the official stance of the United States military, and American forces are now slated to stay in Iraq for years.

Why should we listen to Colonel Reese and not General Odierno or President Obama? Perhaps because he served as the director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, the Army's premier intellectual center - or perhaps because he wrote an official Army history of the Iraq war. But Odierno and Obama plan to ignore him. Instead, they will keep the approximately 130,000 American forces in Iraq at least until the national elections in January. Even after that, 50,000 troops will remain there, including six brigades whose "primary role' will be to advise and train Iraqi troops. (Oh, I get it - they won't be combat troops, they will just be military "advisers." Hmmm...that sounds very familiar -- where have I heard it before?)

Other experts, like Stephen Biddle, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, disagree with Reese and say we should pull out troops even more slowly. After all, "U.S. leverage is a function of U.S. presence," as Biddle wrote in a recent paper. And Iraq's prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki indicated during a recent appearance at the United States Institute of Peace that he foresees a possible role for American forces even after the current December 2011 deadline for the removal of all American troops!

Colonel Reese argues instead that all American forces should withdraw by August 2010, pointing out, "If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. U.S. combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it."

So who's right -- the military and political forces that want to prolong our long national nightmare in Iraq as a means of extending American presence and leverage there, or the expert analyst who literally wrote the book on the U.S. Army's history in Iraq?

Colonel Reese - and the now late, but still great Senator Aiken -- had it right. Out Now!