The answer, of course, is that it depends. By 2009, Republicans might be just as fed up with Iraq as Democrats are, in which case a rapid exit would be as uncontroversial as the Korean conflict’s abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion was. Or the engagement might turn into a shining success and end on its own. Or Republicans might win the White House while Democrats hold Congress, ensuring that both parties share credit and blame for the denouement. (The fact that Republican presidents and a Democratic Congress took the United States out of Vietnam did much to draw the sting from that defeat. It still stung, of course.)
At this writing, however, none of those scenarios looks as likely as the Democrats’ winning both the White House and Congress, with the parties still divided on the war. Then the Democrats will have a decision to make: Withdraw as quickly as possible, on party-line congressional votes? Or withdraw more slowly, at a pace that can command sizable support among Republicans—say, a majority or near-majority of them?
In 2009, a Democratic president might say something like this: “Every year of this administration, America will reduce its troop strength in Iraq. The downward path is nonnegotiable and ironclad. But the pace is not. If Iraqis try sincerely and strenuously to keep their country together, or if they decentralize enough to keep the peace, and if they produce results, we will help them, including militarily. If not, we’ll pull out much faster.” This is not unlike what Joe Biden has said, both as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a Democratic presidential candidate. It implies a faster withdrawal than Bush Republicans prefer, but a slower one than dovish Democrats demand. And my guess is that many, if not most, Republicans would go for it.
Republican hard-liners, of course, might prefer demagoguery. But grown-up Republicans would recognize that withdrawal is inevitable; they would want to be relevant; they would feel battered by the election results, and tired of incurring the public’s wrath; they would face intense pressure not to sabotage a new commander in chief who could claim the public mandate.
The bigger problem for a middle way out, I would guess, would be on the Democratic left. So far in the primary campaign, Democratic presidential candidates have had a hard time keeping the door open for any American forces to stay in Iraq. If the Democrats sweep the board this year, doves will say that the public has spoken and wants change. Why in the world should they pace the withdrawal from Iraq at a rate that suits the losing party?
Yet if the Democrats were to rush for the exit with Republicans unified against them, they would be blamed by Republicans for whatever subsequent disasters befell Iraq and, for that matter, the whole disaster-prone Middle East. For years, they would face charges of having “cut and run,” which could reinvigorate the debilitating stereotype of Democratic weakness. On the other hand, a policy with significant two-party support would be less contentious, more sustainable, and thus more likely to succeed. Running the whole government, Democrats would need to care about succeeding.
The crucial decision the next president will make is not whether to withdraw forces from Iraq—that is baked in the cake—but how. As a corollary, if Democrats win both branches in the fall, their biggest challenge will not be leaving Iraq; it will be keeping America in one piece on the way out. Having felt flicked aside by the Republicans through Bush’s presidency, victorious Democrats will be tempted to return the favor. Before succumbing, they might recall how badly partisan warfare has gone. Then they might ask themselves why a partisan retreat would go any better.