As the situation in Iraq goes from bad to worse, many Americans who opposed the war, including Nation editors and writers, understand that the country must find a way to extricate itself from the disaster they predicted. There is, however, no agreement or even clarity about such an exit strategy. Nor is any leadership on this crucial issue coming from the Bush Administration or as yet, alas, from the presumptive Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry. With a sense of obligation and urgency, The Nation, has asked a range of writers, both regular and new contributors to the magazine, for their ideas on America’s way out of Iraq. Some responded with short essays, while others were interviewed by contributing writer Scott Sherman, who transcribed and edited their remarks. We hope that what follows is the beginning toward a necessary end. And we invite readers to respond; we will publish an exchange in an upcoming issue. –The Editors
In the debate over the Iraq war, a new-minted fragment of conventional wisdom has fixed itself in the minds of mainstream politicians and commentators. Whether or not it was right to go to war, we are told on all sides, the United States must now succeed in achieving its aims. In the words of John Kerry, “Americans differ about whether and how we should have gone to war, but it would be unthinkable now for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals.” Or as Senator Richard Lugar has said, “We are in Iraq and so we’re going to have to bring stability.” Or, as Senator Joseph Biden, among so many others, has said, as if to put an end to all discussion, “Failure is not an option.”
The argument is an irritating one for those of us who opposed the war, suggesting, as it does, that we must now sign up for the project (“stay the course”) because the very mistake we warned against was made. But the problems are more serious than annoyance. Of course, no one wants to see anarchy or repression in Iraq or any other country. But what can it mean to say that failure is not an option? Has the decision to go to war exhausted our powers of thought and will? Must we surrender now to fate? “Failure” is in truth never an “option.” The exercise of an option is a voluntary act; but failure is forced upon you by events. It is what happens when your options run out. To rule out failure is not a policy but a wish–and a wish, indeed, for omnipotence. Yet no one, not even the world’s sole superpower, is omnipotent. To imagine otherwise is to set yourself up for a fall even bigger than the failure you imagine you are ruling out.
And so decisions must still be made. It’s true that we opponents of the war cannot simply say (as we might like to do), “Please roll history back to March of 2003, and make your disastrous war unhappen.” It’s also true that when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government it took on new responsibilities. The strongest argument for staying in Iraq is that the United States, having taken over the country, owes its people a better future. But acknowledgment of such a responsibility is only the beginning, not the end, of an argument.
To meet a responsibility to someone, you must have something on offer that they want. Certainly, the people of Iraq want electricity, running water and other material assistance. The United States should supply it. Perhaps–it’s hard to find out–they also want democracy. But democracy cannot be shipped to Iraq on a tanker or a C-5A. It is a homegrown construct, which must flow from the will of the people involved. The expression of that will is, in fact, what democracy is.