The debate over the war in Iraq follows a yellowing script: the minute someone suggests that the US move to withdraw its troops, war supporters cry “Havoc!” True to form, when no less a figure than Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stated he wants a timeline for a US pullout, John McCain summoned the specter of dire consequences. “I’ve always said we’ll come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable,” McCain said, in a major foreign policy speech on July 15. Barack Obama affirmed his support for a withdrawal timetable, adding that the United States must “get out as carefully as we were careless getting in.” Obama’s position is the correct one, but he, like many other war critics, has done too little to counter the refrain that withdrawal is simply “cutting and running,” a recipe for disaster.
To answer that line of attack was the charge of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq, whose report appeared in June. In March, the Task Force, of which I was a member, convened a group of Middle East and security policy experts on the premise that the next President will indeed set a timetable for extracting US soldiers entirely from their Mesopotamian entanglement. Our Task Force did not seek to restate the case, well-argued by now, for the necessity of withdrawal. Nor did we rehash the reasons why the worst-case scenarios of intensified chaos in Iraq and endemic regional warfare are far from inevitable. Rather, we asked ourselves: What concrete steps can the United States take, immediately and during the withdrawal, to minimize further bloodshed and, instead, encourage peace and stability in Iraq? And how can our nation and others contribute to Iraq’s eventual recovery from its excruciating ordeal?
We approached this charge with a sense of humility. After five years of occupation and civil war, not to mention the preceding decades of war, sanctions and dictatorship, Iraq is a traumatized and politically fragmented country. Since 2003, neighboring states have intervened in Iraq’s internal conflicts to protect their own interests–and they may be tempted to intervene further when the US military departs. On the diplomatic front, Washington’s credibility is badly eroded by a war that most of the world opposed.
Nevertheless, we believe there are many steps that can and should be taken. In the short term, to prevent an abrupt power vacuum, there should be a brief extension of the UN mandate that gives the US-dominated “Coalition forces” in Iraq their legal cover and is due to expire in December. We urge the next President to pursue a sweeping new United Nations mandate, to take effect in 2009, predicated upon a timetable of twelve to eighteen months for a complete withdrawal of US soldiers and private contractors. That mandate should define the contours of international participation in Iraqi reconciliation, reconstruction and humanitarian aid. Simultaneously, the next President should inform the Maliki government that the United States is adopting a stance of neutrality and non-interference in Iraqi politics. Lasting security is unachievable absent a political compromise among Iraq’s various factions, and that compromise is impossible as long as America and its favored Iraqi politicians are calling the shots.