The large Sunni Arab turnout in the December 15 election, together with George W. Bush’s speeches the same week, may have briefly changed the tenor of the debate on Iraq. But it would be wrong to conclude that the Administration’s strategy is working or that this magazine’s case for withdrawal is any less compelling as a result. The election does not spell the waning of popular support for the insurgency, only a new phase in the struggle that will now have both a military and a political dimension. It would also be wrong to conclude that the election will stanch the sectarian violence. In fact, it may only accelerate the drift toward civil war if the Shiite religious coalition–primarily SCIRI and Dawa–dominates the new permanent government, as seems likely, and remains unwilling to compromise with Sunnis and other Iraqis on such critical constitutional issues as federalism and the division of oil revenues.

For these reasons, now is not the time for proponents of an exit strategy to back off from pressing their case or for Congress to give the Administration’s strategy more time. Indeed, now is the time for honest critics of this war and for Congress to make any future funding for American forces contingent on establishing a clear-cut deadline for withdrawal. They must do so because a withdrawal-and-diplomacy strategy is the best hope–perhaps the only hope–of ending the insurgency and averting a full-scale civil war that could draw in the region’s other powers.

In his speeches Bush got it exactly backward: An American withdrawal-and-diplomacy strategy is a condition, though by no means a guarantee, for progress toward stability, not the result of it. Such a strategy is more likely to achieve the goals Bush laid out–a united Iraq with a government strong enough to deny terrorists the use of its territory and an Iraqi security force strong enough to protect its people–than is the evolving counterinsurgency strategy the Administration is pursuing. Instead, the President made the drawdown of forces contingent upon establishing stability in Iraq, although there is abundant evidence that US forces are a major factor contributing to the instability and an obstacle to the process of national reconciliation.

To begin with, a US withdrawal would do far more to end the threat of foreign terrorists in Iraq than would US military action. The election made it clear that Iraqi insurgents control the security situation in central Iraq, not foreign fighters associated with jihadi extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who denounced the election as the work of Satan and threatened anyone who voted. But extremists were unable to make good on their threats, confirming that Zarqawi and his followers are militarily insignificant. Once the United States withdraws, not only would fewer Al Qaeda-inspired fighters be drawn to Iraq but nationalist insurgents would be more likely to throw them out. They might even turn Zarqawi over to Iraqi authorities, as insurgent leaders reportedly offered to Arab League officials at the league’s November conference.

Second, a US withdrawal would remove one of the principal causes of the insurgency. Polls consistently show that some 80 percent of Iraqis oppose the occupation; there likely will be an insurgency as long as US troops are occupying Iraq. Representative John Murtha is correct: Our troops have become “a catalyst for violence.” Top US military commanders have acknowledged as much. They also admit that the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily. This is in part why Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has announced that he is willing to open negotiations with the Sunni insurgents. To be sure, withdrawal might strengthen insurgent morale, but it might also dry up their political support and deny them their nationalist and anti-occupation cause. And if reports from contacts with insurgents are true, most armed groups, excepting only Islamic extremists, are open to a negotiated settlement to the conflict–but only if there is a clear timetable for US withdrawal.

Third, the US counterinsurgency has brought Iraq to the brink of a full-scale war of growing sectarian violence, including car bombings, torture chambers and Shiite and Sunni death squads. A US withdrawal would certainly not be a guarantee against civil war, but it would change the political dynamic and remove some of the obstacles to national reconciliation. Leaders of Iraq’s three main ethnic groups are not likely to make difficult compromises while the occupation continues. The Sunnis believe they can’t get a fair deal as long as the United States backs the most extreme Shiite parties, and the Shiite coalition has been unwilling to make any real concessions to the Sunnis. Why should they, while they enjoy the protection of the US military? A withdrawal would shift responsibility to the Iraqis to work out their own future, to give them ownership of their political process.

Fourth, a withdrawal-and-diplomacy strategy would be more likely to elicit international involvement. Other regional and international powers who share an interest in a stable Iraq might become more engaged once they see that the country’s stability is also their problem and responsibility. It is especially important that an exit strategy include a pledge against permanent US military bases and control over Iraq’s oil and a reversal of the privatization of its economy. Such a strategy would also pressure Iraq’s neighbors to act responsibly to police their borders and curb their allies in Iraq–especially if they were brought into a joint Arab League-UN reconciliation effort. The Arab League conference was an important step in this direction; continued and accelerated multilateral coordination, with the United States and the international community providing reconstruction assistance, would be the best guarantor of long-term stability. In particular, a US withdrawal would change the strategic calculations of Syria and Iran, which have hoped to bleed the United States to weaken its larger neoconservative project in the region.

Finally, of course, there is more at stake for the United States and the American people than Iraq itself. The war has claimed more than 2,100 American lives, left more than 15,500 wounded, demoralized and severely weakened the US military, damaged America’s standing in the world, degraded our civil liberties and diverted precious resources from domestic and international needs. As we have consistently argued, the war has become the most serious threat to our national security and our international reputation. The public understands this; indeed, the growing peace movement has helped reframe the debate, forcing our leaders, however grudgingly, to recognize the need for an exit strategy to help end this disastrous war. A withdrawal-and-diplomacy strategy would not only help stop the killing. It would demonstrate to the world that America has rediscovered the principles of international cooperation on which our security–and that of the world–depends.