The FP Memo

The FP Memo: The Endgame in Iraq

What happens when you take a 40-year-old CIA memo on losing a war and replace the word "Vietnam" with the word "Iraq"? The result is a set of conclusions that are just as true today.

TO: CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden
FROM: Kurt Campbell and Shawn Brimley
RE: The Consequences of Losing in Iraq

American policymakers and intelligence analysts are currently struggling to consider the potential repercussions of failure in Iraq. Forty years ago, an earlier generation of U.S. policymakers were thinking about the implications of defeat in another conflict -- Vietnam.

During the summer of 1967, then CIA Director Richard Helms asked for a quiet review of the global political and strategic consequences of an American failure in Vietnam. The result was a classified memorandum circulated on Sept. 11, 1967, "Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam," which detailed a lengthy list of potential dark outcomes and worrisome prospects.

Excerpts from this document -- with only minor edits -- offer eerie parallels to the very different set of circumstances the United States faces today in Iraq. In considering the Iraq war’s endgame, the U.S. government would be wise to review its own notes.



1. At some stage in most debates about the Vietnam IRAQ war, questions like the following emerge: What would it actually mean for the US if it failed to achieve its stated objectives in Vietnam IRAQ? Are our vital interests in fact involved? Would abandonment of the effort really generate other serious dangers?

2. What we are attempting in this paper is to provide some greater precision about the probable costs, for American policy and interests as a whole, of an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam IRAQ. It is not assumed in this inquiry that such an outcome is now likely; it has been demonstrated, in fact, that the Communists INSURGENTS cannot win if the US is determined to prevent it. But the question of what it would mean for the US if its own objectives are not achieved is relevant and fair. The debate itself shows the need for a sounder basis by which to measure the costs of an unfavorable outcome against the exertions which would presumably still be required to achieve a favorable one.

3. What we mean by "unfavorable outcome" needs to be defined with some realism. We are not discussing the entirely implausible hypothesis of a political-military collapse, say, the precipitate withdrawal of American forces or sweeping political concessions tantamount to granting Hanoi THE ENEMY outright achievement of its aims in the South IRAQ. It seems realistic to believe, given the present scale of US involvement and the sacrifices already made, that this government would approach a settlement short of its aims only by a series of steps involving gradual adjustment of our present political-military posture. Apart from the domestic political pressures that would cause this to be so, the very concern to minimize unfavorable effects on other relationships and on the American world position would argue strongly for such a course.


8. The failure of American policy in Vietnam IRAQ would have repercussions worldwide; it cannot be thought of merely as a local or even as a regional event. This is so, not only because world attention has been so intensively focused on the drama of Vietnam IRAQ for so long, but even more importantly, because the US is involved.

11. The contingency we are discussing in this paper would constitute a rather dramatic demonstration that there are certain limits on US power, a discovery which would be unexpected for many, disconcerting for some, and encouraging to others... Most would probably agree that the US could achieve its objectives... if it persisted long enough and paid the cost. But the compelling proposition emerging from the situation would be that the US, acting within the constraints imposed by its traditions and public attitudes, cannot crush a revolutionary AN INSURGENT movement which is sufficiently large, dedicated, competent, and well-supported. In a narrow sense, this means more simply that the structure of US military power is ill-suited to cope with guerrilla warfare waged by a determined, resourceful, and politically astute opponent. This is not a novel discovery. It has long been suspected. What our postulated situation would do is to reveal it dramatically.


34. A more challenging question is whether the Soviets IRANIANS might not make a reappraisal of American power which would tempt them into rashly aggressive moves. We know their preoccupation with the psychology of power. While they would realize that objectively American capabilities were undiminished, they might speculate on the disorientation of American leadership and on a loss of nerve. We think there is some chance that the Soviets IRANIANS would wish to try on some such hypothesis. It is impossible to say where and how they might move to test American will. If they did so, it would probably be in a tentative manner; any really dangerous probe would be ended as soon as they were satisfied that the US did not accept that any general change in the relations of power had occurred.


36. It seems likely that, in some Communist parties AL QAEDA and in some other leftist JIHADIST groups, armed violence as the way to power would acquire greater appeal. Some, stirred by the romantic revolutionary aura which might seem to surround the Vietnamese JIHADISTS in victory, might actually try to imitate them. Manifestations of this sort would be most likely to occur in Southeast Asia THE MIDDLE EAST itself.

37. We doubt, however, that such impulses would result in a much more widespread and serious Communist insurgency TERRORIST problem than would obtain in any case, either in Latin America THE MIDDLE EAST or elsewhere. If Communists JIHADISTS in some countries temporarily acquired more will to fight, the odds for or against success for such ventures in any particular national setting would remain essentially the same.


41. Certain states which, formally or informally, have linked their security to reliance on US power would be the most troubled... This applies especially in the Middle East among the moderate Arab states and among states on the southern borders of the USSR EUROPE.

There might be some tendency among these to believe that US power had been overrated or was on the wane.

Less than five months after this memo was drafted, the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of offensive operations throughout South Vietnam by North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas, caught U.S. forces and the American public by surprise. In the aftermath of that setback, Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, was replaced and American strategy shifted from conventional operations to counterinsurgency. In many ways, the shift in strategy came too late to alter the outcome of the war. Thirty thousand additional American troops were killed in Vietnam before the United States finally withdrew.

The FP Memo

The FP Memo: Brothers In Arms

The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have more in common than they think. But if the Brotherhood is to win over American skeptics, its actions will have to match its words.


TO: Mohammed Mahdi Akef
Supreme Guide
Muslim Brotherhood

FROM: Marc Lynch
RE: How to Talk to America

When you took over the reins as head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2004, promising to put freedom at the top of your agenda, you probably couldn’t have imagined where your organization would be today. Although still technically banned, the Brotherhood has emerged as the leading opposition group in Egypt, with 88 seats in parliament. Your calls for governmental transparency and accountability represent an entirely new battle in Egyptian politics -- and you've got the scars to prove it.

Since contesting parliamentary elections, you've seen the Egyptian regime aggressively tamper with the ballot box, launch a massive campaign of arrests of Brotherhood members, and alter the Constitution to prevent your participation in the political process. Many in the West are concerned about the way you've been treated by the Egyptian government. But your continued ambiguity about the Brotherhood's core political commitments, your ambivalence toward Hamas's attacks on Israel, and questions about your connections with Islamic extremism have left even your backers doubting your true intentions.

You recently complained that the United States "only knows the language of violence and blood and destruction and doesn't even offer dialogue as an option." But today you have a historic opportunity for such a dialogue. Americans now recognize they are losing the war of ideas in the Arab world, that Islamic extremism is on the rise, and that the promotion of democracy in the region has collapsed. A vigorous debate has ensued in Washington about the Muslim Brotherhood. Some now see you as a relatively moderate force and a potential partner in a common struggle for democracy and against Islamic extremism. But many others see you as an enemy to be confronted, your Islamist agenda as a major source of extremism and anti-Americanism, and your talk of democracy as a deception meant to fool gullible Westerners. How you engage with this debate will have long-lasting repercussions for your relationship with a United States that isn't leaving the region anytime soon.

If you are sincere about seeking meaningful dialogue with the West, then you must tackle this debate now, while it's hot. But repeating the same tired slogans isn't going to cut it. Demonstrate that, despite many policy differences, you share two fundamental goals with the United States: democracy in Arab countries and curtailing the influence of al Qaeda. If you truly want to persuade Americans -- and other Arabs and Muslims -- of the value of engaging with you, here's how to do it:

Use Your Political Capital:
These are difficult times for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in your home country of Egypt. Many of you are bitter over the hostile Western response to Hamas's electoral victory in the Palestinian Territories, seeing it as proof that the game is rigged and that no Islamist party will ever really be allowed to win elections. Many Brotherhood members have begun to wonder whether participating in democratic politics is really worth it, especially as al Qaeda and your more radical rivals mock your misfortunes. But it has never been more important for you to remain publicly and energetically committed to the democratic process than right now. Your Western critics want nothing more than for you to abandon democracy in the face of adversity. They will claim that it exposes your true face to the world -- just as they did when Hamas seized power in Gaza in June. Treat these difficult times as an opportunity: How you react to the tough moments tells us more about you than how you behave when things are going well.

You've done some positive things in this regard already. Your decision to contest this summer's Shura Council elections, when the regime shut off every chance for you to win, spoke well of your commitment to the democratic game. Your parliamentary bloc has performed remarkably, highlighting issues of corruption and political reform. Such demand for accountability in one of the most repressive countries in the Middle East is courageous, and during the past year, many Western democracy activists and human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have rallied to your defense. But don't confuse their principled defense of your right to participate with support for your political goals -- that would be a grave mistake. Their stance should be taken as the fruit of your years of effort at proving your democratic credentials. Don't fail the test now.

Watch What You Say:
You're the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. When you speak, you're representing the entire organization. When you rail against American plans to dominate the region, you're erasing dozens of conciliatory statements by your deputies. Although attacking the United States may play well with your membership, it makes it very difficult for Americans interested in exploring a new relationship with the Brotherhood to make their case. Remember, the days are long past when you can target messages to different audiences and expect others not to listen. If anything, Americans pay more attention to what you say in Arabic than to your blandishments in English, as your Arabic statements are more likely to reflect your true attitude. All politics is global now: What you do and say at home will have worldwide repercussions, especially at a time when Americans are scrutinizing your every move for evidence about your real intentions.

Keep in mind, too, that cardinal rule of communication: Know your audience. You don't need to persuade the hard-line critics or ardent supporters who've already made up their minds. Target the middle ground of sensible, pragmatic Americans who believe in democracy, worry about terrorism, and have genuine questions about your commitments to the former and against the latter. Ignore the praise from your fans and the abuse from your enemies, and concentrate on convincing these hopeful skeptics, who want to believe that you can play a constructive role -- but who need a lot more proof. Nobody expects you to transform into Western liberals, but most Americans want to see evidence of a principled commitment to basic freedoms -- not just for yourselves but for all people. American policymakers need to know that you can coexist with secularists and express your disapproval through peaceful, noncoercive means. So emphasize that enfranchisement for you means enfranchisement for every oppositional Egyptian political tendency -- including those that reject Islamism. A lot of Egyptian Copts seem unpersuaded by your statements that you see them as full citizens, and many democracy activists privately express deep concerns about your intentions. If you can't persuade your fellow citizens, who know you best, how can you hope to convince Americans?

Be a Firewall, Not a Transmission Belt:
Ultimately, the reason Americans are contemplating turning to you is out of an interest in combating Islamic extremism. You have often said that the Brotherhood rejects violence and rejects revolution, at least within your home country (though your tolerance of such violence in Palestine and Iraq muddies your message). You argue that you do so both out of conviction and out of your own self-interest -- to avoid giving justification for regime crackdowns, for instance, or to resist al Qaeda's efforts to seduce your younger members toward more radical action. But your critics respond that once your organization convinces people to embrace their Muslim identity, they are more likely to join violent movements and take up jihad. What are you really doing to prevent such radicalization from happening? Here's one way to think about it: The Brotherhood could either be a firewall ("capturing" the hearts and minds of Muslims within a moderate Islamist program and dissuading them from turning to radicalism), or a transmission belt (catapulting Muslims along the path to radicalization). Which are you? If you could demonstrate in practice that your rejection of violence translates into concrete efforts to curtail extremist violence, Americans would be far more willing to take a chance on your political aspirations.

One way to leave little room for misinterpretation would be a vocal, active condemnation of the practice of takfir. This act of declaring another Muslim an infidel -- one of the most flagrant forms of radicalism in Sunni Islam -- is spreading rapidly. Brotherhood members are not innocent of this practice, despite former Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi’s well-known directive to be "preachers, not judges." Issue a strong statement of the Brotherhood's stance on the practice of takfir. Will you stand up to those who would pass judgment on their fellow citizens? That is what we in American politics call a litmus test. Not long ago, a Saudi religious authority, Salah al-Fawzoon, reportedly pronounced takfir on liberals. Will you openly and publicly denounce him and defend the freedoms of thought and opinion about which you speak so eloquently? And it's not enough to just say it once or sign a document; you must enforce this doctrine through the ranks and be willing to criticize members who violate it. This one clarification would go a long way in drawing a sharp line between you and the radicals.

Learn to Let Go:
When the young blogger (and Brotherhood member) Abd al-Monem Mahmoud wrote in defense of the anti-Islamist blogger Kareem Amer early this year, activists across the political spectrum took notice of this brave, principled, and unexpected stance. Blogging by your members shouldn't just be tolerated; it should be encouraged. Let these blogs become public forums in which Brotherhood members and outsiders from all ideological trends can argue about ideas and strategies. It could help energize your own internal thinking, giving new voices a chance to be heard. And it could demystify the Brotherhood and reassure others about your true intentions. Greater transparency in your internal dialogues and decision-making might be difficult at a time when the regime is cracking down hard, but it would help reassure reasonable skeptics. Doing all that would mean giving up a certain amount of control, though, and allowing for a wider margin of internal freedoms. Disenchanted members of the Brotherhood have long complained about the rigidity of the organization and the lack of tolerance for dissent. Can you prove them wrong and allow an internal pluralism that might reassure others of your wider intentions? Or will you cling to a stance that leaves you squarely at odds with one of your most important strategic allies? The choice is yours alone.