One way of thinking about today’s withdrawal debate is to think about yesterday’s withdrawal debate. My first draft theory about an exit strategy from Iraq was back in 2004 when it seemed to me that we ought to take advantage of the election scheduled in Iraq for late January 2005. Troops should stay in the country through that date, the election should be organized, and then shortly thereafter we could declare victory and announce our schedule for leaving. People said that if we did that, Iraq could fall into chaos and increasing violence. And those people won the day. So we stayed. Then in 2005, Iraq became more violent and chaotic anyway. Then in 2006, Iraq became even more violent and chaotic. Then in 2007, it became even more violent and chaotic. Then momentum changed, the level of violence fell sharply, and then it plateaued at a level of violence and chaos still well-above where it was in 2004.
In other words, the bad things people worried might happen if we left still happened anyway.
In my view, today is no different. But the defense and foreign policy establishment is programmed, deep in its DNA, to have a kind of morbid fascination with the risks of not being involved. So when we talk about Iraq, the debate is dominated by the fear that if we leave some bad things will happen. And that’s not an irrational fear — it’s a bad situation, pregnant with bad possibilities — but precisely because it’s a situation so pregnant with bad possibilities those risks exist either way. We chose not to declare victory in January 2005 and all the bad things that were predicted as a consequence of leaving Iraq happened anyway. There’s a lesson to be learned in that.