How to End the War
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
March 30, 2008
The Washington Post
[Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy
Carter. His most recent book is "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the
Crisis of American Superpower."]
Both Democratic presidential candidates agree that the United States should end
its combat mission in Iraq within 12 to 16 months of their inauguration. The
Republican candidate has spoken of continuing the war, even for a hundred
years, until "victory." The core issue of this campaign is thus a
basic disagreement over the merits of the war and the benefits and costs of
The case for U.S. disengagement from combat is compelling in its own right. But
it must be matched by a comprehensive political and diplomatic effort to
mitigate the destabilizing regional consequences of a war that the outgoing
Bush administration started deliberately, justified demagogically and waged
badly. (I write, of course, as a Democrat; while I prefer Sen. Barack Obama, I
speak here for myself.)
The contrast between the Democratic argument for ending the war and the
Republican argument for continuing is sharp and dramatic. The case for
terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the
case for "staying the course" draws heavily on shadowy fears of the
unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush's and Sen. John
McCain's forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the
predictions of "falling dominoes" that were used to justify continued
U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending
the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it
Nonetheless, if the American people had been asked more than five years ago
whether Bush's obsessions with the removal of Saddam Hussein were worth 4,000
American lives, almost 30,000 wounded Americans and several trillion dollars --
not to mention the less precisely measurable damage to the United States'
world-wide credibility, legitimacy and moral standing -- the answer would have
been an unequivocal "no."
Nor do the costs of this fiasco end there. The war has inflamed anti-American
passions in the Middle East and South Asia while fragmenting Iraqi society and
increasing the influence of Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
recent visit to Baghdad offers ample testimony that even the U.S.-installed
government in Iraq is becoming susceptible to Iranian blandishments.
In brief, the war has become a national tragedy, an economic catastrophe, a
regional disaster and a global boomerang for the United States. Ending the war
is thus in the highest national interest.
Terminating U.S. combat operations will take more than a military decision. It
will require arrangements with Iraqi leaders for a continued, residual U.S.
capacity to provide emergency assistance in the event of an external threat
(e.g., from Iran); it will also mean finding ways to provide continued U.S.
support for the Iraqi armed forces as they cope with the remnants of al-Qaeda
The decision to militarily disengage will also have to be accompanied by
political and regional initiatives designed to guard against potential risks.
We should fully discuss our decisions with Iraqi leaders, including those not
residing in Baghdad's Green Zone, and we should hold talks on regional
stability with all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran.
Contrary to Republican claims that our departure will mean calamity, a sensibly
conducted disengagement will actually make Iraq more stable over the long term.
The impasse in Shiite-Sunni relations is in large part the sour byproduct of
the destructive U.S. occupation, which breeds Iraqi dependency even as it
shatters Iraqi society. In this context, so highly reminiscent of the British
colonial era, the longer we stay in Iraq, the less incentive various contending
groups will have to compromise and the more reason simply to sit back. A
serious dialogue with the Iraqi leaders about the forthcoming U.S.
disengagement would shake them out of their stupor.
Terminating the U.S. war effort entails some risks, of course, but they are
inescapable at this late date. Parts of Iraq are already self-governing,
including Kurdistan, part of the Shiite south and some tribal areas in the Sunni
center. U.S. military disengagement will accelerate Iraqi competition to more
effectively control their territory, which may produce a phase of intensified
inter-Iraqi conflicts. But that hazard is the unavoidable consequence of the
prolonged U.S. occupation. The longer it lasts, the more difficult will it be
for a viable Iraqi state ever to reemerge.
It is also important to recognize that most of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq
has not been inspired by al-Qaeda. Locally based jihadist groups have gained
strength only insofar as they have been able to identify themselves with the
fight against a hated foreign occupier. As the occupation winds down and Iraqis
take responsibility for internal security, al-Qaeda in Iraq will be left more
isolated and less able to sustain itself. The end of the occupation will thus
be a boon for the war on al-Qaeda, bringing to an end a misguided adventure
that not only precipitated the appearance of al-Qaeda in Iraq but also diverted
the United States from Afghanistan, where the original al-Qaeda threat grew and
Ending the U.S. military effort would also smooth the way for a broad U.S.
initiative addressed to all of Iraq's neighbors. Some will remain reluctant to
engage in any discussion as long as Washington appears determined to maintain
indefinitely its occupation of Iraq. Therefore, at some stage in 2009, after
the decision to disengage has been announced, a regional conference should be
convened to promote regional stability, border control and other security
arrangements, as well as regional economic development -- all of which would
help mitigate the unavoidable risks connected with U.S. disengagement.
Since Iraq's neighbors are vulnerable to intensified ethnic and religious
conflicts spilling over from Iraq, all of them -- albeit for different reasons
-- are likely to be interested. More distant Arab states such as Egypt, Morocco
or Algeria might also take part, and some of them might be willing to provide
peacekeeping forces to Iraq once it is free of foreign occupation. In addition,
we should consider a regional rehabilitation program designed to help Iraq
recover and to relieve the burdens that Jordan and Syria, in particular, have
shouldered by hosting more than 2 million Iraqi refugees.
The overall goal of a comprehensive U.S. strategy to undo the errors of recent
years should be cooling down the Middle East, instead of heating it up. The
"unipolar moment" that the Bush administration's zealots touted after
the collapse of the Soviet Union has been squandered to generate a policy based
on the unilateral use of force, military threats and occupation masquerading as
democratization -- all of which pointlessly heated up tensions, fueled
anti-colonial resentments and bred religious fanaticism. The long-range
stability of the Middle East has been placed in increasing jeopardy.
Terminating the war in Iraq is the necessary first step to calming the Middle
East, but other measures will be needed. It is in the U.S. interest to engage
Iran in serious negotiations -- on both regional security and the nuclear
challenge it poses. But such negotiations are unlikely as long as Washington's
price of participation is unreciprocated concessions from Tehran. Threats to
use force on Iran are also counterproductive since they tend to fuse Iranian
nationalism with religious fanaticism.
Real progress in the badly stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process would also
help soothe the region's religious and nationalist passions. But for such
progress to take place, the United States must vigorously help the two sides
start making the mutual concessions without which an historic compromise cannot
be achieved. Peace between Israel and Palestine would be a giant step toward
greater regional stability, and it would finally let both Israelis and
Palestinians benefit from the Middle East's growing wealth.
We started this war rashly, but we must end our involvement responsibly. And
end it we must. The alternative is a fear-driven policy paralysis that
perpetuates the war -- to America's historic detriment.