The facts on the ground are inescapable--the US occupation of Iraq must be ended. Over the last several weeks, many of the nation's pundits, policy-makers and military brass have concluded that "the American position is untenable," to quote former US ambassador to the United Nations and Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke. One Pentagon consultant spoke for many in the military when he referred to Bush's Iraq policy as "Dead Man Walking."
Meanwhile, the Army Times called on Donald Rumsfeld and other senior defense officials to step aside in the wake of the metastasizing Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal--"a failure that ran straight to the top."
Support for the occupation among both Iraqis and Americans is also eroding quickly. Recent Coalition Provisional Authority polls found that 80 percent of Iraqis distrust the US. And, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup, the majority of Iraqis now want the US to leave Iraq immediately, while only a third of Iraqis believe the US-led occupation is doing more good than harm. (And that poll was taken in late March and early April.)
In the United States, the most recent polls found that 60 percent of Americans think that we've "gotten bogged down in Iraq." Moreover, by a 54 to 44 margin, Americans say that unseating Hussein was not worth the mounting cost in blood and money.
America's politicians, of course, are trailing behind public opinion. In setting the parameters of this debate, neo-conservative hawks like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz–and even some leading Democrats--have presented the world with a false choice. "Stay the Course," they urge, because if we leave Iraq now, we will consign the country to civil war and an Iranian-style dictatorship for years to come.
At this point, there are no good options but Kerry, sadly, has bought into this assumption by making the case that the US must remain in Iraq lest it descend into chaos. Shorn of the neocons' pipedreams for a democratic Iraq, Kerry's rhetoric is, essentially, an "Internationalization of Staying the Course."
But, by staying the course, America risks doing much more harm than good. We create new recruiting tools for terrorists in the region with our widespread abuses and neglect hotbeds of terrorist activity along the Pakistan-Afghan border. We will simply trap the US and UN in a spiral of unending violence, as the stand-offs in Najaf and Falluja demonstrate. And the occupation itself is breeding instability and violence, while strengthening the most radical Islamic forces. The world will grow even more cynical about America's global intentions, Iraqi morale will keep plummeting, and the UN's credibility as an independent body will continue to erode.
While the neocons frame the debate over Iraq as a war between light and darkness, civilization and terror, democracy and Islamic-fascism, the uprising against the Americans is, in fact, nationalist in character. War in Iraq has never offered the hope of finding Osama bin Laden, avenging 9/11 or dealing the terrorists a major military or psychological blow.
"Iraq's twentieth century resistance to foreign threats has typically been national in character, not separatist, beginning with the revolts against British occupation in the 1920s," wrote William Pfaff recently in the International Herald Tribune. America, Pfaff argues, must leave Iraq soon based on a strategy of "Iraqi national interest and Iraqi nationalism"--real sovereignty that grants Iraqis full responsibility for managing their nation's resources, security and foreign affairs.
Kerry has the opportunity to articulate just such a bold vision--let's call it the "Internationalization of Withdrawal." The capacity to admit a mistake and change course for the sake of the nation and the world is the ultimate test of any true leader.
For the sake of our nation's credibility; of the untenable security situation; the mounting US and Iraqi deaths and casualties; and of the worldwide crisis of confidence in the United States triggered by Bush's unilateral policies, America needs a Kerry exit strategy.
Here at home, the political landscape is shifting rapidly to pressure Kerry to change course. On May 18, thirty-nine groups--organized by the Win Without War coalition--launched a campaign calling for withdrawal from Iraq. They plan to use email and telephone campaigns--as well as public protests--to push Kerry and Democratic members of Congress to craft a credible exit plan.
As one of the key organizers put it, "there's a lot of frustration among some people that Kerry has not distinguished himself from Bush on this policy." Kerry should seize the moment, they argue.Still, many of the coalition's leaders intend to vote for him in November--and not Ralph Nader, who has called for the US to pull out of Iraq in six months. As someone involved in Win Without War's work made clear: "We do not wish to complicate or oppose" Kerry's campaign. "But the peace movement must stand for what it believes is right.and become an independent factor that politicians cannot take for granted. We appreciate Senator Kerry's criticism of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, but we not agree that more American troops should be sent to that unlucky country. We hope Senator Kerry will remember his Vietnam experience as he reflects on the crisis in Iraq."
The same day Win Without War launched its campaign, two leading foreign policy establishment figures called on Kerry to craft an exit strategy. In an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post, James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser in the Clinton Administration, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue that it is critical to set a date to get out. (Both men have advised Kerry.)
Kerry now has the opportunity to join not only a swelling movement for withdrawal, but also to ally himself with many leading military officials--and with the increasingly demoralized US occupation forces and their families--who are saying that this is a war we cannot win, and one that will bleed both the American forces as well as the Iraqi people. It is clear that only the Iraqi people can successfully fight for their own future.
Kerry can say that he agrees with a majority of Americans that we were deceived about WMDs, credibly declare victory by calling for early elections to be administered by the United Nations or other international organizations and endorse a hand-off of genuine sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
As soon as those elections are over, our job would be done. We don't need long-term bases in Iraq, and we should respect the Iraqi people's right to self-determination. Kerry should make the case that by leaving Iraq quickly and responsibly, America will improve its security, not weaken it.
If he can muster the courage, Kerry certainly has the background to take on this president and re-frame this debate. He also has the moral authority to do what is right for America and reject the politics of caution that so far has defined his campaign and disappointed so many supporters. Kerry saved the lives of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam and later was the eloquent and moderate leader of the veterans' antiwar movement.
While I still strongly believe that Ralph Nader has made a terrible mistake by running in a year when all energy must be focused on defeating Bush, he is now challenging Democrats to give Americans a clear choice in Iraq. Kerry would be wise to offer some bold ideas for creating a smarter, safer security policy and giving the Iraqi people a genuine opportunity to figure out their own future.