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How to Get Out of Iraq | The Nation

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How to Get Out of Iraq

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Stephen F. Cohen

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For the sake of American lives, values and real security, as well as peace and stability in the increasingly explosive Middle East, the United States must find a way to withdraw its military forces from Iraq as soon as possible. And do so with some vestige of, yes, honor--not for the bogus reason of international "credibility" but to prevent a malignant who-lost-Iraq politics in our own country.

The only near-term and honorable way out is by linking a firm US commitment to a phased military withdrawal to an Iraqi popular election for a representative national assembly that would itself, not the occupation authorities or its appointees, choose an interim government, adopt a constitution for the country and then schedule elections for the new permanent institutions of government.

For Iraqis, only such a directly elected assembly can have legitimacy and thus the "sovereignty" that the Bush Administration is desperately trying to manufacture and "transfer." Do not mistake this approach for the Administration's afterthought of "building democracy in Iraq," which would mean resolving all that tormented country's internal conflicts, and for which America utterly lacks both the power and wisdom even to attempt. It means instead giving the Iraqis an opportunity to do it themselves. (Whether or not they can is their destiny, not ours.) Considering the devastating consequences of an unnecessary American war, providing such a democratic opportunity is both the least and most we can now do. And having done so, the United States can declare, paraphrasing sage but ignored advice given during the Vietnam War, "Mission accomplished. We're going home."

For this democratic exit to work, the United States must, as the otherwise vacuous refrain goes, "stay the course," but a course based on four promises that must be kept. American-led occupation authorities will permit free and fair elections to the national assembly, within the next six to nine months, under the auspices of the UN or another international body. They will accept the electoral outcome even if it is an anti-American majority. Meanwhile, the United States will prepare Iraqi security forces but begin its military withdrawal once the interim government is functioning. And Washington will continue to provide funds for the reconstruction of Iraq as long as the new Iraqi authorities generally abide by their democratic origins.

We must flatly dismiss American proponents of a permanent US garrison in Iraq--for the sake of oil, Israel, some "anti-totalitarian" crusade, or empire--but there still may be three objections to this relatively quick and honorable exit strategy. One is that the American occupation should not end until there is stability in Iraq, because the consequences will be chaos and violence. But this admonition ignores the historical lessons of occupations elsewhere and of the current situation in Iraq: There can be no stability until foreign occupation ends, as is clear from the chaos and violence unfolding today. The second objection is that anti-American "extremists" will disrupt the election for the national assembly. But if such Iraqis really want America gone, they will support an electoral process that leads to a US withdrawal.

The third objection may be heartfelt: We did not go to war, and lose lives, to risk the advent of another anti-American regime in Baghdad. Yes, the Bush Administration went to war to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and when there were none, it said the war was really about democracy. Now this afterthought, whatever the political (or economic) outcome, is the only way out and our last chance to be remembered as liberators. The alternative is indefinite colonial-style rule, growing and increasingly violent Iraqi resistance, and an ever-more brutal and self-corrupting American occupation--and eventually an even more anti-American regime that will come to power by means other than the ballot box.


A professor of Russian studies and history at New York University. His latest book is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.

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