We have paid a heavy price for the Bush Administration’s unnecessary and illegal invasion of Iraq: more than 800 American soldiers dead; more than 4,500 wounded or maimed; and $120 billion wasted on a war and occupation that has sullied our country’s image in the world, undercut our moral authority and poisoned Arab and Muslim minds against us for decades to come. We will pay an even heavier price if we “stay the course,” as the Administration and many Democrats urge. If, as war supporters claim, our goals in Iraq (now that we’ve lost the rationale of hunting down weapons of mass destruction) are stability and democracy, we are proceeding in exactly the wrong way. In the eyes of most Iraqis, American forces have long since ceased to be nation-builders and instead are occupying forces that knock down their homes, bomb their mosques and abuse and humiliate their fellow citizens. The occupation, like other occupations throughout history, has generated a growing popular resistance that cannot be defeated militarily. It is time to change course.
We can start by turning over real sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government. However imperfect this new entity may be, it will have a better chance of establishing at least modest legitimacy if the United States treats it, in private and public, not as a puppet regime but as an autonomous government.
We can also announce that US troops will no longer engage in offensive operations and that we will pull out our forces, with the goal of total withdrawal by the end of the year. At the same time, we can try to persuade the United Nations to establish a multinational peacekeeping force to take over after our departure, and we can pledge to contribute to that effort in whatever way the international community regards as appropriate, including the possible participation of US troops.
To take these steps is not to “abandon” Iraq. Rather it is to assist in producing the stability we claim to want. The United States should continue to help Iraq by providing economic and humanitarian assistance and by supporting UN efforts to aid the interim government in conducting the earliest possible elections. This government should have authority over the economy and oil revenues and command over the country’s security forces, as well as the right to set terms for the operation of any foreign troops on its soil. Washington should announce that it will pay reparations toward the rebuilding of Iraq to compensate for the devastation wrought by the US invasion and occupation. And it should renounce any interest in controlling Iraqi assets and in establishing US military bases. Only by yielding political and economic control in Iraq and disengaging our forces, while supporting UN nation-building efforts in a disinterested way, can we hope to reverse the growing rage in the Arab world and halt the current spiral of violence.
Two arguments are advanced–including by many well-meaning American liberals–against withdrawal. The first is that we owe it to the Iraqis whose lives we have violently disrupted to remain. In this view, withdrawal is tantamount to condemning Iraq to chaos. The second argument, a corollary to the first, is that an unstable, ungovernable Iraq will become a haven for extremists.
Although these concerns are serious, neither argument holds up under scrutiny. If the United States withdraws its forces, Iraq could face a violent power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds or between rival factions of the same sectarian group. But the risks must be weighed against the fact that US forces themselves are a major cause of the current instability. The troops there now are doing little to provide security for postwar reconstruction; they–and those seen to be cooperating with them–are the target of a widening guerrilla war against what is seen as an oppressive occupying power. More American forces will not change that logic; on the contrary, a harsher military campaign will only cause further alienation, turning even more Iraqis–Shiites as well as Sunnis–against us. Furthermore, we are not in a position to repair the divisions among a people whose language we do not speak and whose traditions we hardly understand; indeed, to the extent that we have succeeded thus far in unifying Iraq’s fractured population, it has been in opposition to the American occupation.