Letting Go of Iraq

The establishment of a pro-Iranian, Islamic government in Iraq was not exactly what the Bush administration told us to expect from the war. But it may well be the result, and I am beginning to think that there is nothing that the United States can or should do about it -- except to disengage from Iraq on an expeditious timetable.

As I write, we are a week away from the August 15 deadline for a draft of the new Iraqi constitution, with no break yet in the long-running deadlock among Iraq's major factions over such issues as federalism. Assuming they do reach a compromise, however, the constitution is likely to include provisions for Islamic law that reduce the rights that women enjoyed even under Saddam Hussein. According to early reports about the structure of the new parliament, it's also likely that when elections are held in December, they will give the pro-Iranian Shia religious parties at least as much power as they won in the last elections, and probably more.

What, then, will be the mission of American troops in Iraq? If, against all odds, the new constitution reconciles the Sunni minority to the new government, the insurgency should lose momentum, and we ought to be able to withdraw on a rapid schedule. But if, more realistically, the Sunnis remain unreconciled and the insurgency continues, should our soldiers remain to protect the Shia-dominated government?

The United States set in motion the political process leading to the new constitution, so we can't very well repudiate the result if it produces an Islamic government allied with Iran. But many Americans may wonder why our soldiers should be asked to sacrifice their lives to ensure that government's success.

The results of the war have so far been utterly perverse. Not only wasn't Iraq actively developing weapons of mass destruction; the invasion gave Iran all the more incentive to pursue its own nuclear program so it would not someday suffer the same fate as its neighbor -- and it has now broken off negotiations with the Europeans over that program and resumed processing nuclear fuel. That our intervention has inadvertently brought pro-Iranian parties to power in Iraq only adds to the irony. The great neoconservative hope was that the war would create a new political dynamic in the region that would favor pro-Western democracy. In fact, we have changed politics in the region -- in favor of Iran, just at the time that country has moved toward a more conservative, hard-line, Islamic government.

And the list of perverse effects of the war doesn't end there. By occupying Iraq, we have provided the insurgency its sustaining passion. Rather than stopping terrorism, we have stoked it. We sought to demonstrate American power, and we have ended up demonstrating its limits.

By early August, President George W. Bush's approval rating for his performance in Iraq had sunk to 38 percent, no doubt primarily because of the unending news of American casualties. Yet the polls have also shown no majority in favor of an American withdrawal. The public seems to be as stuck as the Bush administration with a war that has ceased to offer much hope of achieving any of the goals expected of it. The nation has no enthusiasm for the war and no organized opposition to it. We have no parades and no protests. The war recedes into the background of our lives, like a dull pain or a chronic illness, only occasionally seizing our attention. The press is docile, and the Democratic Party has played almost no role in speaking for the growing numbers of Americans who want this war ended as soon as possible.

But the time is coming for a genuine opposition leadership. Those who have had doubts about the war ought to summon the courage to call for a rapidly phased withdrawal: Once Iraq's new government assumes power, America's soldiers will have done as much of the job as we should ask of them. The United States should then offer financial support and training, but the new government, perhaps with other countries' assistance, ought to provide the soldiers to defend itself within a year. This is not a wild scheme. Recently, after stepping down as chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove called for foreign troops to quit Iraq by the end of 2006 so “we take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops.”

Even if the United States were to remain in Iraq for years providing its defense, the news might still come, once we finally left, that some strongman had seized power and was waving his fist at us. We cannot control the destiny of Iraq. The sooner we face up to that fact, the clearer the road home will be.

Paul Starr is coeditor of The American Prospect.

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