Exit With Honor

The American people want out of Iraq, but critics of the Iraq War seem stymied by the mess that the Bush policy has created. Here is an exit strategy that makes sense as geopolitics and domestic politics: The U.S. commits to leave Iraq on a date certain, say August 1, 2006. We use this yearlong period to negotiate the creation of an international peacekeeping entity, also responsible for aiding Iraq's reconstruction. The date certain signals that we're serious.

This force would include troops from moderate Muslim nations, such as Tunisia and Egypt; other nonaligned nations such as India; and traditional peacekeepers, such as the Scandinavian countries. It could be sponsored by the United Nations or as a freestanding body. The U.S. would pay at least half the cost.

This policy works on four grounds.

First, it re-engages the international community with an enterprise in which the United States has placed itself in costly and feckless isolation. It would also help repair the broader damage of Bush's isolation and rekindle the cooperation that the U.S. needs to defeat terrorism.

Second, it keeps faith with the people of Iraq. Many critics of the Bush policy have nonetheless argued that the United States, having created the mess, needs to remain until Iraq is tolerably stable. By substituting an international force for an American occupation army, we remove the United States as a lightning rod, which could reduce the level of violence; we substitute competence for incompetence; and we increase the chances of eventual stabilization. By removing the U.S. as overseer, we signal the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds to broker their own grand bargain to govern their country.

Third, a majority of Americans now believe that this war was a bad idea and is not worth the cost in lives, mutilations, and dollars. But we can't just leave anarchy. This allows exit with honor.

Finally, as domestic politics, this strategy offers a credible alternative for President Bush's critics in both parties, one that trumps the administration's course.

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But would the international community really agree to fill this vacuum? Some members of Bush's Potemkin “coalition of the willing,” including Italy and Bulgaria, are talking about withdrawal, not recommitment. However, nations that have been unwilling to bail out a failed, arrogant policy might be more easily persuaded to join a multilateral effort, given an American exit. And if the burden of committing a constabulary force were widely shared, no one nation would suffer major casualties. Admittedly, most Europeans would prefer to contribute money, troops for border patrols, and sorely needed training efforts outside Iraq rather than peacekeepers inside Iraq, but it all helps.

The role of Muslim nations is tricky. The Shia majority in Iraq, only just freed from Sunni domination, doesn't want a foreign occupation force dominated by Sunnis. Moreover, many Muslim governments are poor candidates either because they are direct or indirect parties to the conflict (Turkey, Iran) or do not come with clean hands (Syria, Pakistan). Still, the broader Muslim world surely would welcome an American exit and an increased role for the international community.

Could this alternative succeed? Under the present course, we face interminable occupation, quagmire, increasing insurgency -- and a belated, ignominious exit eerily reminiscent of Vietnam. By contrast, an international peacekeeping force could actually increase troop strength to adequate levels, something politically impossible if it remains an American project.

The removal of American troops also means that the United States would no longer stand accused of wanting permanent bases or plundering Iraq's oil. With a reduced level of distrust, the possibility of brokering a political solution among the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds would increase, and the guerrilla insurgency would be more politically isolated.

Of course, risks would remain, including civil or separatist war, an Iraq-Iran axis, and Iraq as a haven for terrorists. But under international stabilization, all of these risks would be reduced, and Iraq would be less of a magnet for anti-Americanism. In the event of a genuine regional threat to our own security, such as Iranian nuclear weapons, the United States would retain all of the options it currently has.

In past UN peacekeeping operations, from Cambodia to the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. has kept its troops out when that course made strategic sense. This approach to Iraq is entirely in the spirit of tough multilateralism that dates to the Roosevelt administration. It certainly beats isolationism or endless occupation, as policy and as politics.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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