Today, when only 38 percent of Americans believe that invading Iraq five years ago was the right course of action, it is easy to forget that 72 percent of Americans favored war in March 2003.
The past five years have, of course, failed to live up to many American expectations. Much intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) turned out to be wrong. A postinvasion Iraq that was projected to finance its own reconstruction is now absorbing 12 billion US taxpayer dollars per month. An Iraqi society that was supposed to become a model of liberal democracy is instead torn by insurgent violence and dependent upon a huge US military presence. Insurgents have killed 4,000 Americans and far more Iraqis.
Today, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, it's tempting to render all kinds of judgment on critical questions: Is America safer today because of the war? Are we winning? Was the decision to go to war flawed or purposely misleading? What went wrong with the occupation? What effect has the war had on America's allies and enemies? When will the war end? These are natural questions to ask. But answering them would be premature.
That's because conclusively evaluating the war requires much information that is not presently available. Published sources offer conflicting accounts of the Bush administration's prewar deliberations, leaving unclear what exactly top administration officials knew and believed about Iraqi WMD and Iraq's potential for democratization. Thus, we must await the release of classified government documents, several decades from now, to judge the decision on the basis of what was known at the time, which is one way that future historians will assess it.
Assessing the decision with the wisdom of hindsight, as historians will also do, likewise requires a decades-long period of waiting for critical facts to emerge. Reports that Saddam Hussein sent WMD to Syria before his downfall have yet to be verified or disproved. Only time will reveal whether Iraq has served as a magnet for terrorists who otherwise would have gone to the United States to perpetrate the next 9/11.
If Americans were asked on Sept. 12, 2001, what sacrifices they would make to prevent another massive terrorist attack, a large fraction no doubt would have been willing to accept the costs that have been incurred in Iraq. After all, 9/11 killed 3,000 people and caused economic damage that, according to some estimates, exceeded the costs of the Iraq war to date.
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.
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."