The Corner

Iraq: This Is How History Works

In the waning days of World War II, the OSS gave FDR a briefing that would have turned his hair white, if it hadn’t been white already. The president was told to expect a sea of German saboteurs and assassins running rampant through post-war Europe. They would number in the tens of thousands. It might take years to quell the havoc.

The briefers were wrong. The Nazis did, indeed, have a “Werewolf” campaign to continue the fight after armistice, but it largely fizzled. Hundreds of thousands of American troops flooded back home sooner than expected.

Yet some stayed and, for reasons that shifted over the years, American troops remain there today. They remain in Japan and South Korea, too.

This history is not recited to suggest that Iraq is on the road to becoming the next South Korea, but it is a reminder of how the future unfolds. There is no predictable linear path, and in matters of war, everybody gets a vote — enemies as well as allies. Anyone who tells you today just how many troops will be in Iraq ten years hence and just what shape the country will be in is guessing just as much as the OSS agents who briefed FDR on the post-war nightmare that never came.

Here is what we know for sure. 1) Given the state of Iraq in 2006, the country is in a much better place today that any reasonable observer then dared hope. 2) Iraq is better off than it was in the age of Saddam. Now the country has a future, and it rests in the hands of its people. Bonus: The world is rid one of its most dangerous and bloodthirsty thugs. Yes, it was a heavy price. Freedom rarely comes cheap. 3) The surge worked. The surge never promised a land of “milk and honey.” It just promised to break the cycle of continuous, unrelenting violence, to give the new Iraqi political process a chance, and to allow the Iraqis time to build the capacity for their own security. It did that. 4) Things didn’t turn out the way Bush planned. But the vision — a free Iraq without Saddam — was achieved. Remember, things didn’t turn out the way FDR planned either. He said all the troops would be out of Europe in two years.

Here is what we don’t know. How much longer will U.S. troops need to stay there? The fact that the “combat” troops are gone does not mean that the mission is done or that U.S. troops won’t see some kinds of combat. While troops don’t and should not remain permanently in Iraq, they will obviously need to stay longer than one or two more years. Withdrawing U.S. forces too fast would jeopardize progress. Freedom may lose its momentum. Everything is contingent on events on the ground. There cannot even be serious discussions about the long-term U.S. presence until after an Iraqi government is formed.

This may not be the history people want, but it’s the history we have. It may not pretty, but it is perhaps a better history right now than many could have hoped for a few years ago.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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