Visions of Saigon Redux Dance in Rachel Maddow's Head

Did you know that not a single American soldier was killed in combat last month in Iraq?

(Updated with correction: October marked the first month since the battle of Baghdad in April 2003 in which an American soldier was not killed in combat in the Iraqi capital).

I didn't, at least not until last week, what with the mainstream media's post-surge interest in Iraq dwindling in proportion to the prospect of a US debacle.

Yet even with conditions in Iraq improving by the month, some observers on the Left can't refrain from invoking apocalyptic outcomes for the conflict.

Here's what one of them, Rachel Maddow of Air America Radio and MSNBC, said on her radio show Thursday about the proposed status of forces agreement between the US and Iraq that would allow an ongoing presence for American troops after a UN mandate expires Dec. 31 (click here for audio) --

As mentioned, the Iraq-US status of forces agreement has devolved into physical confrontation in parliament in Iraq and we're going to be talking with Juan Cole (University of Michigan professor and Middle Eastern expert) about that this hour. But keep in mind that the question here is not just whether or not it will pass. The question here is, in part, if it does pass, what are the implications for US troops staying in Iraq? We know the consequences would be dire, abrupt and very unpredictable if nothing passes and there isn't an extension of the UN mandate that could keep US troops in Iraq. Essentially the war in Iraq would end all of a sudden on Dec. 31 and US troops would be out almost immediately. It would be a helicopters-off-the-embassy-roof sort of situation.

Minutes later on the same show, Maddow refuted her own histrionic claim and pointed out that even without a status of forces agreement, American troops won't be forced to flee from the rooftops of Baghdad on New Year's Eve (click here for audio) --

You know this but just to recap, unless legislation passes the Iraqi parliament legalizing the extended presence of American troops in Iraq, the Iraq war will accidentally end on Dec. 31 at midnight. It will end in the sense that no America soldier would be able to leave an American base in Iraq without opening himself or herself up to war crimes charges. Really, honestly, under international law, American troops would have to be heading out.

But if "no American soldier would be able to leave an American base in Iraq" in the absence of an agreement, why would there be a frantic, year-end exodus by helicopter? At risk of stating the obvious, there wouldn't, despite claims of those who confuse wishful thinking with perceptive analysis.

What makes Maddow's assertion laughable is that the disastrous outcome she invokes was much more likely to have occurred had the US followed the path advocated two years ago by President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden - an abandonment of Iraq to the tender mercies of al Qaeda and an emboldened insurgency.

In this regard, an analogy to Vietnam is instructive. After Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, Democrats strengthened by Nixon's disgrace and their own successes in that year's mid-term elections refused the request of Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, for military aid to South Vietnam under attack by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Whether further US aid would have saved South Vietnam is arguable, but what occurred in its absence is beyond dispute -- the rapid collapse of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the communists, along with death, dislocation and imprisonment for millions of people.

If another Saigon-style rout for the US is even remotely possible, why didn't Maddow ask Obama about this when she interviewed him Oct. 30, only five days before the election? Not only did Maddow neglect to ask a single question about Iraq or of dire potential consequences without a status of forces agreement, Maddow actually asked Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a week later, also on her MSNBC show, what he thought Obama's views were on the subject.

Maddow's lofty claim falls to earth of its own dead weight for a specific reason. In the spring of 1975, the US had only a token military presence in South Vietnam. Compare that to 140,000 American troops currently in Iraq, along with a greater number of private defense contractors.

Call it conjecture if you will, but I'd venture to say that the meager US military presence in South Vietnam in 1975 emboldened North Vietnam and the Viet Cong to invade South Vietnam. Just as the presence of 300,000-plus troops and defense contractors might be viewed as a deterrent to would-be aggressors in Iraq.

Another Vietnam analogy comes to mind, one almost certainly anathema to liberals -- the surge was an American version of the Tet Offensive and, as such, the turning point of the war.  

University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, one of Maddow's guests on her radio show last Thursday, was noncommittal about Maddow's Saigon analogy, acknowledging it while not endorsing or refuting it. A more level-headed Cole also had this to say (click here for audio) --

If the agreement goes through there would still be operational cooperation between the United States military and that in Iraq. I mean, we've been doing a lot of the logistics, like they need equipment someplace to prepare for a battle against the Mahdi Army, so we're the ones that take the equipment there. And, or, they get into trouble in a firefight and they need somebody to come and bomb a building from which the sniping is coming, we do that for them. I expect that to, this provision, this agreement wouldn't, would not stop that kind of cooperation from continuing.

Maddow's assertions are useful in another regard, however. If the presence of US troops is illegal after Dec. 31 without a status of forces agreement, their current mission in Iraq is legal under international law.

Granted, this is only implicit confirmation from a mouthpiece of the Left, but probably the most we can expect.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts