With the Middle East on the cusp of war, President Bush’s foreign policy for the area–remaking the region through invasion and occupation–is now effectively buried under the rubble of bombed out buildings, decimated bridges and civilian bodies.

The ongoing sectarian carnage in Iraq now barely makes it onto the front pages–and television is filled with the latest, horrifying scenes of devastation from the region. But Jessica Stern’s op-ed, in Saturday’s New York Times, is a powerful reminder of why we must not lose sight of ending the US occupation of a ravaged Iraq. Stern, a leading expert on terrorism, argues that our continuing occupation–and the growing number of revelations of US military atrocities (which she points out “are likely to proliferate the longer we remain in Iraq”) will vastly increase the pool from which Al Qaeda and its sympathizers can recruit new members and supporters. As she reports, the latest Al-Qaeda video “tries to recruit ordinary American Muslims who might be offended, as many ordinary Americans are, by America’s mistakes and moral failings in carrying out the war on terrorists.” What Stern is saying is that this Administration’s policies are actually increasing the possibility of future terrorist acts here in the US.

Yes, Iraq is complicated. As Robert Kuttner wrote recently in the Boston Globe, “..the search for a viable Iraq policy is really hard. President Bush has left the country with a policy problem from hell that may be literally insoluble, for him or anyone else.” I agree, but at the same time that view should not lend a kind of gloss of acceptance to continued occupation.

Over the past three years, the Administration and its allies have offered a succession of reasons for why we must “stay the course”–all designed to match the succession of rationales for the war itself. An American withdrawal, we’ve been told, would embolden the insurgency, make Iraq a safe haven for terrorists and foreign jihadis and lead to civil war. One by one each of these predictions has come true. Not, of course, because we withdrew or even announced a timetable for withdrawal or redeployment but because we could not control the forces the war and occupation have unleashed and created.

At this point, there may be little America can do to stop the sectarian violence or even an all-out civil war. The sanest course is to remove US forces and work with the international community to keep Iraq from disintegrating as a result of our invasion and occupation. That means a shift from the failed military model to an all-out diplomatic and economic effort to limit the damage our reckless policies have caused. That means declaring no permanent bases or control of oil. But this Administration and its newly energized neo-con allies have little interest in diplomacy or giving Iraqis real sovereignty.

Stern’s argument is a powerful and pragmatic rejoinder to the “stay the course” crowd. “We made a major error by going to war in Iraq…..Some errors yield not only bad outcomes, but also bad choices, and this is one. It will be dangerous for both Iraqis and Americans if we leave Iraq as a failed state. But it is even more dangerous to remain where our continuing presence will inevitably result in further cruelties and atroctiies, providing more arguments for more videos to attract more terrorist recruits around the globe–including here at home.”