Critics Of Obama's Exit Strategy Have Argument Backwards

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The narrative that seems to be emerging from the most bellicose critics of last night's speech by President Barack Obama is that his setting a start date for the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan is a gift to al Qaeda and an invitation for them to wait out the enterprise, watch U.S. forces leave, and declare victory.

This conviction overwhelms any satisfaction the hawks might have gotten from his Bush-like decision to send 30,000 additional troops there for the purposes of "break[ing] the Taliban's momentum," "increas[ing] Afghanistan's capacity," and "disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda."

"Dates for withdrawal are dictated by conditions," Mr. McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. "The way that you win wars is to break the enemy's will, not to announce dates that you are leaving."

McCain seems to have missed the part where, other than that July 2011 start date, all the withdrawals are, to the great disappointment of critics of the war, based on conditions on the ground.

I'd personally add that anyone who has watched America unroll war-on-terror policies under the current and previous administrations and argues that Obama's current "exit ramp" dates aren't subject to a lot of mutability are deluding themselves, or fibbing.

But let's address the gigantic error at the heart of the argument: That our terrorist enemies now have the upper hand, knowing that the United States will, starting in 19 months, begin the process of leaving. Taking this to its logical extreme, we conclude that in order to fully cow terrorist organizations abroad, the United States must, at all times, demonstrate the willingness to commit to an open-ended, deadline and benchmark-free, everlasting-if-need-be occupation, wherein, I suppose, we beat the terrorists down with indisputable displays of "steadfastness" and "resolve," damn the costs to our nation in blood and treasure.

Well, in 2003, the United States mounted just such a campaign, when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Iraq, he said, would become "the central front in the war on terror" and we would fight on that front unrelentingly, until every terrorist had been sucked in to this cunning stratagem and wiped out. There were to be no timetables, no deadlines, no exit strategy. Just one loud, lingering yawp of resoluteness, lasting until evil was defeated. The immediate result was the creation of a huge and effective insurgency in Iraq, and dramatically increased militancy abroad. Far from cowing terrorist networks into surrendering under the threat to go hard, forever, the invasion of Iraq touched off what could only be described as a boom time for global jihad.

A study conducted by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, found that there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) since the Iraq invasion. When Iraq and Afghanistan, which together account for 80 percent of attacks and 67 percent of fatalities, were excluded, there was still a 35 percent per year increase in the number of jihadist terrorist attacks.

The hawkish critics of Obama's war policy believe any talk of dates or deadlines or exit strategies makes life easy for terrorists. But as you can see, as actual facts indicate, our previous adventures in open-ended wars were no impediment to jihadists who desired to carry out worldwide terrorist attacks. Kind of the opposite, actually. These unending occupations enable terrorists by providing a key cause for recruitment.

By the way, such open-ended military engagements cost the United States real money, and places a real strain on our armed forces. If al Qaeda succeeds in breaking our bank or our military infrastructure, I'd venture that they'd call that a strategic victory, whether or not they pull off any more terrorist attacks in the meantime.

We shouldn't be worried about whether we're accommodating terrorists by providing them with a two-year window to lay low -- we should be worried about the fact that they've managed to thrive just fine under the threat of indefinite engagements.

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