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Iraq, five years later – still too soon to judge

It'll take decades to set the record straight. What we need now is the fortitude to win.

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At the moment, we lack essential information about the war's impact on the international scene. The extent of foreign support and opposition, in 2003 and 2008, will not be known until the declassification of documents, since the true views of governments often differ sharply from their public postures. Libya and other countries may or may not have become more willing to cooperate with the US after watching Saddam Hussein fall.

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In researching Lyndon Johnson's 1965 decision to fight in Vietnam, four decades after the fact, I discovered information that led to a fundamental reassessment of the decision. Contrary to what nearly all historians and journalists had written, every country in Asia aside from China's allies supported American intervention in Vietnam. Many of those countries made hitherto unknown offers of combat troops and military aid. US intervention in Vietnam persuaded the Indonesian military to oust the pro-Communist President Sukarno, one of America's greatest victories in the cold war.

For the US, the fall of Sukarno and subsequent international developments reduced the strategic stakes in Vietnam. In Iraq, by contrast, the strategic stakes have increased over time. An American withdrawal today would likely lead to genocidal violence, the spreading of war beyond Iraq, the conversion of Iraq into an Al Qaeda sanctuary, or all of the above. Such eventualities could compel the US to intervene militarily under circumstances even less favorable than those prevailing.

Most of what Senators Obama and Clinton presently say about Iraq concerns past mistakes. The next president, however, will not be a time-machine operator, but a shaper of the present and future who will need to offer the American people not gloom, but hope.

It is easy to speak of withdrawing from Iraq at a Democratic fundraiser, but very difficult to order it from the Oval Office, where the weight of awesome responsibilities presses down. Watching the Democratic candidates' recent hedging of withdrawal promises, one suspects that they recognize the perils of rapid withdrawal and the impossibility of ending the conflict promptly through negotiations.

Chances are very good, therefore, that the US will mark many more anniversaries in Iraq. The next president will, like it or not, be another war president, and voters would be well advised to bear this in mind.

Americans can also improve the prospects for success in Iraq by setting aside bickering over darts that have already been thrown and cooperating to ensure that the next darts hit their targets. The judgment and fortitude of the American public will probably produce the piece of missing information most important to assessing the war – its outcome.

Mark Moyar is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."