At this point, I have no doubt that the doves are doomed to lose the argument as to whether or not the “surge” was the right policy to pursue in January 2007. At the same time, I have no doubt that had we instead pursued a policy of strategic redeployment starting in January 2007 and the exact same situation had played out, that the facts on the ground would be cited as evidence that the doves were wrong to leave behind an Iraq torn by violence, riven by factionalism, and governed by Iran-linked parties.
This is undoubtedly true, but I’d go further. While it’s possible for war opponents to be vindicated after they’ve already been defeated in the policy process – as in the initial invasion of Iraq and the ’64-onward escalation in Vietnam – it’s impossible for war opponents to have their preferred policies enacted and win the argument in the court of public opinion. Suppose that, somehow, Colin Powell and Dick Armitage had convinced Bush to stick to inspections and continued sanctions in Iraq in early 2003. I have no doubt that conventional wisdom in 2009 would be that the doves kept a dictator in power and left the door open for him to get nuclear weapons. Same thing if, by some similar implausibility, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had failed in Congress and all US advisors were removed from South Vietnam. Saigon would have fallen sooner, and whoever tanked the escalation in Congress would be tarred forever with losing Indochina.
One caveat is that this presupposes an argument. Given as the 1964 and 2003 debates were triggered by an executive intention to go to war anyway, the situation is murkier had the executive intention not existed in the first place. But while it wouldn’t be as central a narrative, doves would still foot some blame. Had Gore won in 2000 and the Iraq debate never happened, you’d still hear voices – from the PNAC crowd, sure, but Fred Hiatt and his ilk too – condemning him for not “dealing” with Saddam. If Johnson had never pushed to escalate in Vietnam, he’d be attacked for neglect when Saigon fell.
The logic behind this is simple enough. Debates over war are debates over priorities. With some exceptions – like when conservatives decide that not enough Latin American nuns are being gunned down – there’s very little debate on what goals we should be pursing when the question of force arising. Every respectable person in 1964 opposed the spread of Communism. Every reasonable person in 2003 thought the world would be better off with Saddam out of power. The debate in 1964, such as there was one, was instead about whether keeping South Vietnam in the American orbit was worth committing hundreds of thousands of troops. The debate in 2003 was about whether dislodging Saddam was worth the military commitment and diplomatic damage. So when you oppose a war, you are effectively judging the costs of inaction against those of action, and when war opponents succeed, the costs of inaction remain. Which, in turn, makes it easy to argue that we should have invaded after all.