President Bush is facing some painful choices on Iraq. As he weighs the high strategic stakes in the Middle East and the high political stakes at home, history may provide some relevant lessons.
Since the Iraq Study Group issued its report in December, Bush has been urged from many quarters to seek a bipartisan bargain with Congress. This, the theory goes, will give him political cover for the strategic as well as political risks that disengagement may entail. But Bush should be wary: The promised political cover may not materialize. If he begins a disengagement against his better judgment and that of his commanders, and the result accelerates the destabilization of Iraq and the Middle East, the names of James Baker, Lee Hamilton, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will be relegated to footnotes. History's bumper sticker will record that George W. Bush pulled the plug. It will be his legacy alone. The president may prefer, instead, that the historical record be unambiguous about who forced an unwise decision.
Public opinion, of course, can change. In 1973, 1974 and 1975, Congress undoubtedly felt it was reflecting the country's disillusionment with the Vietnam War, and it forced a disengagement over the Nixon administration's strong objection. Yet military historians are coming to a consensus that by the end of 1972, there was a much-improved balance of forces in Vietnam, reflected in the 1973 Paris agreement, and that Congress subsequently pulled the props out from under that balance of forces—dooming Indochina to a bloodbath. This is now a widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam, and it has haunted the Democrats for a generation.
Today, Congress, too, faces a pivotal choice on Iraq. The moment that Congress enacts a law constricting the president's freedom of action in Iraq, it buys a considerable share of responsibility for the war's outcome. Will tomorrow's narrative be that the strategic military situation in Iraq was starting to improve in 2007 but Congress pulled the plug anyway—emboldening Islamist extremists throughout the region and demoralizing all our friends? If so, perhaps it's not President Bush who needs political cover from his opponents but they who want political cover from him.
The huge strategic stakes in the Middle East argue for resisting calls for any U.S. withdrawal not warranted by conditions in Iraq. The irony is that whoever is elected president next year—from whichever party—will come to understand this better than anyone.
From this perspective, Bush owes it to his successor to achieve the maximum possible stabilization of Iraq so that his successor will have the maximum options. The successor can pull the plug immediately and blame it all on Bush; go all-out to win; or begin a controlled disengagement, as Richard Nixon decided to do when he inherited the Vietnam War in 1969. Conversely, if Bush himself begins a process of unraveling, his successor will inherit a range of choices far worse than what the country faces now.
Those running for president, especially, would be well advised, amid the excitement of the campaign, to reflect on what will be required of the winner. Potentially the most destabilizing new factor in the world in the coming period is the fear of American weakness. All the hyperventilation about American hubris and unilateralism is a tired cliche; it never had much validity anyway. The real problem is that the pressures pushing us to accept defeat in Iraq are already profoundly unnerving to allies in the Middle East, and elsewhere, who rely on the United States to help ensure their security in the face of continuing dangers. If we let ourselves be driven out of Iraq, what the world will seek most from the next president will not be some great demonstration of humility and self-abasement—that is, to be the "un-Bush"—but rather for reassurance that the United States is still strong, capable of acting decisively and committed to the security of its friends. Given our domestic debate, to provide this reassurance will be an uphill battle in the best of circumstances. It will be even more difficult if President Bush succumbs to all the pressures on him to do the wrong thing in Iraq.