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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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As the situation in Iraq goes from bad to worse, many Americans who opposed the war, including Nation editors and writers, understand that the country must find a way to extricate itself from the disaster they predicted. There is, however, no agreement or even clarity about such an exit strategy. Nor is any leadership on this crucial issue coming from the Bush Administration or as yet, alas, from the presumptive Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry. With a sense of obligation and urgency, The Nation, has asked a range of writers, both regular and new contributors to the magazine, for their ideas on America's way out of Iraq. Some responded with short essays, while others were interviewed by contributing writer Scott Sherman, who transcribed and edited their remarks. We hope that what follows is the beginning toward a necessary end. And we invite readers to respond; we will publish an exchange in an upcoming issue.   --The Editors

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Jonathan Schell

In the debate over the Iraq war, a new-minted fragment of conventional wisdom has fixed itself in the minds of mainstream politicians and commentators. Whether or not it was right to go to war, we are told on all sides, the United States must now succeed in achieving its aims. In the words of John Kerry, "Americans differ about whether and how we should have gone to war, but it would be unthinkable now for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals." Or as Senator Richard Lugar has said, "We are in Iraq and so we're going to have to bring stability." Or, as Senator Joseph Biden, among so many others, has said, as if to put an end to all discussion, "Failure is not an option."

The argument is an irritating one for those of us who opposed the war, suggesting, as it does, that we must now sign up for the project ("stay the course") because the very mistake we warned against was made. But the problems are more serious than annoyance. Of course, no one wants to see anarchy or repression in Iraq or any other country. But what can it mean to say that failure is not an option? Has the decision to go to war exhausted our powers of thought and will? Must we surrender now to fate? "Failure" is in truth never an "option." The exercise of an option is a voluntary act; but failure is forced upon you by events. It is what happens when your options run out. To rule out failure is not a policy but a wish--and a wish, indeed, for omnipotence. Yet no one, not even the world's sole superpower, is omnipotent. To imagine otherwise is to set yourself up for a fall even bigger than the failure you imagine you are ruling out.

And so decisions must still be made. It's true that we opponents of the war cannot simply say (as we might like to do), "Please roll history back to March of 2003, and make your disastrous war unhappen." It's also true that when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government it took on new responsibilities. The strongest argument for staying in Iraq is that the United States, having taken over the country, owes its people a better future. But acknowledgment of such a responsibility is only the beginning, not the end, of an argument.

To meet a responsibility to someone, you must have something on offer that they want. Certainly, the people of Iraq want electricity, running water and other material assistance. The United States should supply it. Perhaps--it's hard to find out--they also want democracy. But democracy cannot be shipped to Iraq on a tanker or a C-5A. It is a homegrown construct, which must flow from the will of the people involved. The expression of that will is, in fact, what democracy is.

But today the United States seeks to impose a government on Iraq in the teeth of an increasingly powerful popular opposition. The result of this policy can be seen in the shameful attacks from the air on the cordoned-off city of Falluja, causing hundreds of casualties. The more the United States tries to force what it insists on calling democracy on Iraq, the more the people of Iraq will hate the United States, and even, perhaps, the name of democracy. There is no definition of an obligation that includes attacking the supposed beneficiaries' cities with F-16s and AC-130 gunships.

President Bush commented recently of the Iraqis, "It's going to take a while for them to understand what freedom is all about." Hachim Hassani, a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Muslim group represented on the so-called Governing Council, might have been answering him when he commented to the Los Angeles Times, "The Iraqi people now equate democracy with bloodshed."

Under these circumstances, staying the course cannot benefit Iraq. On the contrary, each additional day that American troops continue to fight in Iraq can only compound the eventual price of the original mistake--costing more lives, American and Iraqi, disorganizing and pulverizing the society, and reducing, not fostering, any chances for a better future for the country.

There are still many things that the United States can do for the people of Iraq. Continued economic assistance is one. Another is to help international organizations assist (but only to whatever degree is wanted by the local people) in the transition to a new political order. But all combat operations should cease immediately and then, on a fixed and announced timetable, the American forces should withdraw from the country. In short, the United States, working with others, should give Iraqis their best chance to succeed in their own efforts to create their own future.

According to the most recent Times/CBS poll, the public, by a margin of 48 percent to 46 percent, has decided, with no encouragement from either of the two major-party presidential candidates or from most media commentators, that the war was a mistake. Forty-six percent have decided that the American troops should be withdrawn. They are right. The United States should never have invaded Iraq. Now it should leave.


The Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute, he is the author, most recently, of The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (Metropolitan).

Howard Zinn

Any "practical" approach to the situation in Iraq, any prescription for what to do now, must start with the understanding that the present US military occupation is morally unacceptable. Amnesty International, a year after the invasion, reported: "Scores of unarmed people have been killed due to excessive or unnecessary use of lethal force by coalition forces during public demonstrations, at checkpoints and in house raids. Thousands of people have been detained [estimates range from 8,500 to 15,000, often under harsh conditions] and subjected to prolonged and often unacknowledged detention. Many have been tortured or ill-treated and some have died in custody." The prospect, if the occupation continues, whether by the United States or by an international force (as John Kerry seems to be proposing), is of continued suffering and death for both Iraqis and Americans.

The history of military occupations of Third World countries is that they bring neither democracy nor security. The laments that "we mustn't cut and run," "we must stay the course," our "reputation" will be imperiled, etc., are exactly what we heard when at the start of the Vietnam escalation some of us called for immediate withdrawal. The result of staying the course was 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese dead.

The only rational argument for continuing on the present course is that things will be worse if we leave. In Vietnam, they promised a bloodbath if we left. That did not happen. It was said that if we did not drop the bomb on Hiroshima, we would have to invade Japan and huge casualties would follow. We know now and knew then that this was not true. The truth is, no one knows what will happen if the United States withdraws. We face a choice between the certainty of mayhem if we stay, and the uncertainty of what will follow if we leave.

What would be a reasonably good scenario to accompany our departure? The UN should arrange, as US forces leave, for an international group of peacekeepers and negotiators from the Arab countries to bring together Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and work out a solution for self-governance that would give all three groups a share in political power. Simultaneously, the UN should arrange for shipments of food and medicine, from the United States and other countries, as well as engineers to help rebuild the country.

The one thing to be avoided is for the United States, which destroyed Iraq and caused perhaps a million deaths through two invasions and ten years of sanctions, to play any leading role in the future of that country. In that case, terrorism would surely flourish. It is for the United States to withdraw from Iraq. It is for the international community, particularly the Arab world, to try to reconstruct a nation at peace. That gives the Iraqi people a chance. Continued US occupation gives them no chance.


Author, in 1967, of Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, and, later, A People's History of the United States.

William R. Polk

Lakhdar Brahimi's proposals are interesting, perhaps even hopeful, but they pose almost as many problems as they address. The Shiites are worried that he is attempting to undercut their claims on power, and after the siege of Falluja the Sunnis will probably worry that he is, inadvertently or not, acting as a cover for American attempts to hang on to control. They have reason to worry.

The world press has reported that very little real authority will be handed over to the Iraqis or the United Nations. If the UN is to be of any value in pacifying Iraq, it cannot simply be used by the United States as a fig leaf. It must show Iraqis that it is truly independent, and so a worthwhile step forward for them. For all that, some form of UN trusteeship appears to be the best answer now available. It seems to me that the best form of trusteeship is minimal, not much more than attempting to keep order. Anything more will certainly raise fears in Iraq that outsiders--the United States or the UN--really intend to stay. That will create the only unity there now is in Iraq, hostility to foreigners.


Responsible for planning Middle Eastern policy at the State Department, 1961-65 and then a University of Chicago professor of history. His books include The United States and the Arab World and The Elusive Peace.

John Brady Kiesling

President Bush promised the Iraqi people and the international community that our military victory would make Iraq a peaceful, democratic state, a model for its neighbors and a bastion against terrorism. If this was our war aim, our victory did not achieve it. The resistance movement has pinned down our soldiers and contractors as enemy occupiers. If our troops pull out, there will be civil war among a dozen rival factions. If our troops stay, in redoubled numbers to suppress the violence, their hulking presence will doom each future Iraqi government to illegitimacy and failure. So let us consider the alternatives to victory.

In the end a fractured Iraq can be held together only by a man wrapped, like George Washington or Ho Chi Minh, in the legitimacy that derives from successful armed struggle. We should note the ease with which a scruffy young cleric united Sunnis and Shiites against the US presence. A victorious Secretary Rumsfeld could not impose Ahmad Chalabi. However, a retreating US military can designate Iraq's liberator. We must select the competent Iraqi patriot to whom we yield ground while bleeding his competitors. There will be casualties and disorder, no matter how brilliantly we orchestrate our withdrawal. But the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will rally around any man who claims to drive us out, and elections would validate his relatively bloodless victory.

The man on a white horse can bring the UN back as invited guests rather than as our despised surrogates. His police will enforce the law, when ours cannot. His debts will be forgiven, when ours would not. America must swallow its resentment and keep a measure of control by doling out the money to keep the Iraqi state functional. Ten billion dollars a year will buy more counterterrorism cooperation than a military occupation that costs five times as much. And we will let the Iraqis do the work. The most virtuous Halliburton employee is ten times more expensive than the most corrupt Iraqi. Democracy and human rights may take a generation, but our defeat will convince a resentful and fatalistic Middle East that change is possible.

The Kurds, admittedly, will resist any weakness in their US ally. Our parting gift to them will be the southern border for an autonomous Kurdish entity. The price will be US cooperation with Turkey to extort a semblance of respect for the Iraqi central government and the rights of Arab and Turkmen minorities.

We were defeated once, in Vietnam, and the dominoes did not fall. We remained the leader of the free world, sadder but wiser. The ignorance and megalomania that brought us into Iraq are far more dangerous to US security and prosperity than would be the symbolic military defeat that gets us out.


A career diplomat who served in US embassies in Tel Aviv, Casablanca, Athens and Yerevan. In February 2003 he resigned from the Foreign Service in protest against Bush Administration foreign policy.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

The United States faces two critical issues in Iraq. First is the necessity of genuinely engaging the international community in stabilizing the security situation, supporting the new Iraqi government after June 30 and rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy. Crucially, this does not mean simply brokering a face-saving resolution and handing off to the UN, only to blame the UN later when Iraq slides into chaos or worse. On the contrary, it means clearly defining a UN mandate, to be supported by NATO and other regional organizations, and then committing the human and material resources necessary to carry out that mandate. Handing off to the UN without such support is an abdication of responsibility and an admission of failure.

Second is accepting that a genuine democracy in Iraq will bring a genuine majority to power. The way to protect minorities in a democratic Iraq is through federalist provisions and explicit guarantees of minority rights. In principle, even a Shiite theocracy can abide by such guarantees. The United States has proclaimed the principles of democracy and self-determination and must now abide by whatever results are consistent with the protection of basic international human rights.


Dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

Noam Chomsky

Occupying armies have responsibilities, not rights. Their primary responsibility is to withdraw as quickly and expeditiously as possible, in a manner determined by the occupied population. It follows that the orders issued by proconsul Bremer are illegitimate and should be rescinded, including those designed to place the economy effectively in the hands of Western (mostly US) banks and MNCs, and the 15 percent flat tax, which, apart from its injustice, bars the way to desperately needed social spending and reconstruction. Without economic sovereignty, prospects for healthy development are slight and political independence verges on formality.

It also follows that Washington should end the machinations to insure its long-term military presence and control of Iraqi security forces, in defiance of the will of Iraqis, who call for Iraqis to control security, according to Western-run polls, which record only minuscule support for the occupying military forces and their civil counterparts (the CPA) or the US-appointed Governing Council. With a decision, however reluctant, to transfer authentic sovereignty to Iraqis--not just the traditional facade for Great Power domination--there will be no justification for the huge diplomatic mission, apparently the world's largest, announced by the occupiers.

Such steps entail abandonment of plans to establish the first secure military bases in a client state at the heart of the world's major energy reserves, a powerful lever of world control, as has been understood for sixty years, and a means to subordinate the region more fully to US interests--and the prime motive for the invasion, according to Western polls in Baghdad, though some agreed with articulate Western opinion that the goal was to establish democracy (1 percent) or to help Iraqis (5 percent).

A large majority of Americans believe that the UN, not the United States, should take the lead in working with Iraqis to transfer authentic sovereignty as well as in economic reconstruction and maintaining civic order. That is a sensible stand if Iraqis agree, as seems likely, though the General Assembly, less directly controlled by the invaders, is preferable to the Security Council as the responsible transitional authority. Reconstruction should be in the hands of Iraqis, not delayed as a means of controlling them, as Washington has indicated. Reparations--not just aid--should be provided by those responsible for devastating Iraqi civilian society by cruel sanctions and military actions; and--together with other criminal states--for supporting Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities and beyond. That is the minimum that honesty requires.


His most recent books are A New Generation Draws the Line; New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; 9-11; Understanding Power; On Nature and Language; The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?; Chomsky on Democracy and Education; Middle East Illusions; and Hegemony or Survival.

Stephen F. Cohen

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.

Ray Close

The first thing we have to adjust to is the reality that nationalism is the most significant force in Iraq today. It is replacing the genuine feelings of gratitude that many Iraqis had toward the United States immediately following their liberation. We have always had a set of objectives--based on neocon ideology, not Iraqi hopes--which are unattainable because they offend the spirit of Iraqi nationalism.

One, we want long-term strategic military bases. Two, we count on retaining significant influence over Iraqi oil policy. Three, we favor unrestricted foreign investment in a country that has a history of intense hostility toward alien ownership of the country's economic enterprises and natural resources. Four, we expect Iraq to support America's role in the Middle East peace process even when it would mean aligning Iraqi policy with that of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. Failure to achieve those four objectives will appear to both Republicans and Democrats to be a failure of Bush's overall Iraq policy. But the Administration has already boxed itself in to the point where there is no way it can modify those objectives to meet reality.

There has to be regime change in Washington. It's the only way to solve the Iraq problem.


Former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, he served for twenty-seven years as an "Arabist" for the agency.

Phyllis Bennis

One year after President Bush's announcement of the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq, Washington's drive to empire faces new and serious challenges. One year to the day after US military forces famously pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein, the front page of the Washington Post featured a photograph of a US soldier pulling down another potent symbol--this one a poster of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr--from a pillar in the same Baghdad square.

The US-led occupation of Iraq is failing, and ending the Bush Administration's disaster can only begin with ending that occupation--not with a nominal "transfer of power" that leaves 130,000 US troops still occupying Iraq, but with an actual end to the occupation. Unlike in Vietnam, the constant barrage of "we're building democracy in Iraq" rhetoric may have made it impossible for Bush to "declare victory and get out." Instead, ending the occupation will likely mean admitting that the war was wrong, that "staying the course" is only making things worse and that hundreds of young American and coalition soldiers as well as thousands of Iraqi civilians are paying an unacceptable price.

The end of the US occupation will not alone, however, mean the end to Iraq's crisis. Devastated after years of crippling economic sanctions, internal repression and US assaults that destroyed its governing capacity, Iraq will require significant international help. But only after full US withdrawal can serious thought be given to how the global community might--indeed must--support Iraq's post-occupation efforts to reclaim its sovereignty.

The withdrawal and the dissolution of the US-imposed "Governing Council" will make possible the entry into Iraq of an international team, led by the United Nations and backed by the key regional alliances--the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference--to provide protection and support. Accountable to whatever Iraqi authority emerges after the occupation ends, that team should be made up primarily of technocratic experts--in elections, in development, in economic planning, etc.--and only secondarily include a military self-defense and security component.

Most Iraqi military resistance is aimed directly at the occupation; an international assistance mission that does not control Iraqi territory, does not impose laws on Iraq, does not hand Iraqi assets over to corporate profiteers and does not claim Iraq's oil as its own will almost certainly be welcomed by a majority of the Iraqi people. UN credibility will be severely diminished if, with or without a new Security Council resolution, the organization sends personnel, funds or other assistance to Iraq to bolster, legitimize or "internationalize" the US occupation. Only after the US occupation ends will UN involvement in Iraq reflect its international legitimacy.


Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.

Mansour Farhang

Iran and the United States both have competing ambitions and common concerns in Iraq. Tehran favors popular sovereignty, political equality and majority rule in Iraq, the exact opposite of its own governing system. This emanates from the fact that the Shiites of Iraq, the Iranian theocrats' co-religionists, constitute 60 percent of Iraq's population. The Bush Administration, in contrast, advocates democracy in abstraction but fears majority rule in practice. What favors Iran in this competition is the fact that only the Shiite clerics possess the capacity for mass mobilization in Iraq. During the terror of Saddam Hussein, more than 200,000 Iraqi Shiites took refuge in Iran. Today most Iraqi Shiites are grateful to Iranians and perceive them as allies. Washington is aware of this sentiment and wants Iran to use its influence to contain the radical anti-occupation elements in the Shiite communities.

Iran's fears are another story. The Iranian authorities, like most people in the region, are convinced that Ariel Sharon and his neoconservative allies in Washington want to ignite a civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis of Iraq, with the Kurds remaining on the sidelines. Such a war would likely engulf almost the entire region. Iran would back the Shiites, while Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf would aid the Sunnis. Al Qaeda and the pro-Saddam Baathists, like the Likud government in Israel, view such a conflict as an advantage for their competing objectives. Iran's reigning mullahs are convinced that the United States has nothing to gain and much to lose from such a conflict, but they believe the Bush Administration can be manipulated to pave the way for it.

The key to preventing this calamity is for the United States and Iran to start negotiating their differences and support a UN initiative to establish a federal system consisting of autonomous entities for the Shiites, the Kurds and the Sunnis. Iran's theocrats have used their confrontation with the United States to create crises for the purpose of justifying cruel treatment of their democratic opponents. Normalization of US-Iran relations can contribute to both the goal of peace in Iraq and the cause of democracy in Iran.


Professor of politics, Bennington College.

Sherle R. Schwenninger

The most commonly proposed Democratic alternative to the Administration's policy in Iraq--turning over political authority to the United Nations and getting more countries to provide more troops and money--is well intentioned but lacks seriousness, for two reasons.

First, it is not realistic to expect the UN to assume such responsibility without more resources, without assurances from the United States about security and without some control over the conduct of American military strategy. Likewise, it is not realistic to expect countries like Egypt, France, Germany, Russia, India and Pakistan, which opposed the war, to now commit substantial troops to Iraq in the middle of a major insurgency, especially without a larger shift in US policy. For both domestic and international reasons, these countries do not want to be seen as instruments of what they consider to be a misguided American policy toward the Middle East in general.

Second, the Democratic alternative does not go far enough to change the political dynamic from one of occupation (albeit a more legitimate one) to one of Iraqi sovereignty. After all, the UN itself has been a target of the insurgents, and there now seems to be a general mistrust and impatience with any foreign control over Iraq's future. Any proposal to stabilize Iraq must restore a sense of ownership to the Iraqi people as well as real power.

For these reasons, we need to think in bolder terms about what we can offer to the international community and to the Iraqi people in order to gain their active support for a plan that would transfer authority to the UN and to an Iraqi interim government. There would need to be three elements to this grand bargain. The first would be the promise of substantial resources to the UN, not only for this Iraqi state-building effort but also for comparable efforts in the future, including resources that would increase the capacity of the UN to provide more of its own security in the future for such missions. Unless the United States can demonstrate to the other major stakeholders in the UN that its attitude toward the organization has changed, it is unlikely to elicit more than a token response.

The second element of the grand bargain must be the internationalization of other elements of US Middle East policy that affect the political dynamic inside Iraq. It makes no sense whatsoever for other countries to commit money and security forces to Iraq as long as the United States continues to condone Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and pursues a hostile policy toward Iran and Syria. At a minimum, this means a shift in American policy toward nonbelligerence toward Iran and Syria, a commitment to a clear timetable for a Palestinian state and a commitment to a true no-weapons-of-mass-destruction zone in the Middle East, which means a commitment to confront Israel over its possession of nuclear weapons.

The third and final element would need to be a quick turnover of true sovereignty to the Iraqi people, however ill prepared they may now seem for this task. At a minimum, any interim government must have control over its own security forces and economy. To demonstrate that Iraqis own their own economy, we might consider the idea proposed by Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, which would give every Iraqi an ownership stake in the country's oil wealth. If, for example, on June 30 every Iraqi received $300 as a distribution of future profits from the nation's oil wealth, it might change dramatically the political dynamics within Iraq, insuring a more peaceful transition to full statehood.

But unless we are willing to think more boldly along these lines, the wiser course may be for the United States to withdraw its troops and disengage more generally from the region, allowing the Iraqi people to sort out their future, with the understanding that there may be a long period of instability, but at least the United States would not be a contributing factor to that instability and no longer a target of Arab anger and frustration.


Senior fellow, World Policy Institute at the New School University.

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