By Theodore C. Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
The New York Times
Sorensen and Schlesinger offer first-hand historical perspective and reveal parallels between the situation Kennedy faced in Vietnam and Bush now faces in Iraq. While Kennedy was never able to put his plan into effect due to his assassination, it makes as much sense for Iraq today as it did for Vietnam then. Unfortunately, Bush, who lacks the wisdom, the intelligence, the compassion and the experience of JFK, will probably never even consider it.
"What did we Americans not hear from President George W. Bush when he spoke...at the U.S. Naval Academy about his strategy for victory in Iraq?Photo Credit: John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Oval Office. July 11, 1963. By Cecil Stoughton, White House. (Wikipedia)
We did not hear that the war in Iraq, already one of the costliest in American history, is a running sore. We did not hear that it has taken more than 2,000 precious American lives and countless - because we do not count them - Iraqi civilian lives.
America can't take that kind of endless and remorseless drain for a vaguely defined military and political mission. If we leave early, the president said, catastrophe might follow. But what of the catastrophe that we are prolonging and worsening by our continued presence, including our continued, unforgivable mistreatment of detainees?
The president says we should support our troops by staying the course; but who is truly willing to support our troops by bringing them safely home?
The responsibility for devising an exit plan rests primarily not with the war's opponents, but with the president who hastily mounted an invasion without enough troops to secure Iraq's borders and arsenals, without enough armor to protect our forces, without enough allied support and without adequate plans for either a secure occupation or a timely exit.
As we listened to Bush's speech, our thoughts raced back four decades to another president, John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the last year of his life, we watched from front-row seats as Kennedy tried to figure out how best to extricate American military advisers and instructors from Vietnam....
...Eventually he began to understand that withdrawal was the viable option. From the spring of 1963 on, he began to articulate the elements of a three-part exit strategy, one that his assassination would prevent him from pursuing. The three components of Kennedy's exit strategy -- well-suited for Iraq after the passage of a new constitution and the coming election -- can be summarized as follows:
Make clear that we're going to get out. At a press conference on Nov. 14, 1963, the president did just that, stating, 'That is our object, to bring Americans home.'
Request an invitation to leave. Arrange for the host government to request the phased withdrawal of all American military personnel -- surely not a difficult step in Iraq, especially after the clan statement last month calling for foreign forces to leave. In a May 1963 press conference, Kennedy declared that if the South Vietnamese government suggested it, 'we would have some troops on their way home' the next day.
Bring the troops home gradually. Initiate a phased American withdrawal over an unannounced period, beginning immediately, while intensifying the training of local security personnel, bearing in mind that with our increased troop mobility and airlift capacity, American forces are available without being stationed in hazardous areas. In September 1963, Kennedy said of the South Vietnamese: 'In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.' A month later, he said, ''It would be our hope to lessen the number of Americans' in Vietnam by the end of the year.
President Kennedy had no guarantee that any of these three components would succeed. In the 'fog of war,' there are no guarantees; but an exit plan without guarantees is better than none at all.
If we leave Iraq at its own government's request, our withdrawal will be neither abandonment nor retreat. Law-abiding Iraqis may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we leave; but they may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we stay. The president has said we will not leave Iraq to the terrorists. Let us leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who have survived centuries of civil war, tyranny and attempted foreign domination.
Once American troops are out of Iraq, people around the world will rejoice that we have recovered our senses. What's more, the killing of Americans and the global loss of American credibility will diminish. As Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican and Vietnam veteran, said, 'The longer we stay, the more problems we're going to have.' Defeatist? The real defeatists are those who say we are stuck there for the next decade of death and destruction.
In a memorandum to President Kennedy, roughly three months after his inauguration, one of us wrote with respect to Vietnam, 'There is no clearer example of a country that cannot be saved unless it saves itself.' Today, Iraq is an even clearer example." Read more.