The New York Times
It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the
Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.
Like many Americans, we have put off that conclusion, waiting for a sign that
President Bush was seriously trying to dig the United States out of the disaster
he created by invading Iraq without sufficient cause, in the face of global
opposition, and without a plan to stabilize the country afterward.
At first, we believed that after destroying Iraqs government, army, police and
economic structures, the United States was obliged to try to accomplish some of
the goals Mr. Bush claimed to be pursuing, chiefly building a stable, unified
Iraq. When it became clear that the president had neither the vision nor the
means to do that, we argued against setting a withdrawal date while there was
still some chance to mitigate the chaos that would most likely follow.
While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs after
elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But
those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic
Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bushs plan is
to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his
successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost.
The political leaders Washington has backed are incapable of putting national
interests ahead of sectarian score settling. The security forces Washington has
trained behave more like partisan militias. Additional military forces poured
into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.
Continuing to sacrifice the lives and limbs of American soldiers is wrong. The
war is sapping the strength of the nations alliances and its military forces. It
is a dangerous diversion from the life-and-death struggle against terrorists. It
is an increasing burden on American taxpayers, and it is a betrayal of a world
that needs the wise application of American power and principles.
A majority of Americans reached these conclusions months ago. Even in
politically polarized Washington, positions on the war no longer divide entirely
on party lines. When Congress returns this week, extricating American troops
from the war should be at the top of its agenda.
That conversation must be candid and focused. Americans must be clear that Iraq,
and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after
Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American
forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing
refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to
make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new
stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.
The administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress, the United Nations and
Americas allies must try to mitigate those outcomes and they may fail. But
Americans must be equally honest about the fact that keeping troops in Iraq will
only make things worse. The nation needs a serious discussion, now, about how to
accomplish a withdrawal and meet some of the big challenges that will arise.
The Mechanics of Withdrawal
The United States has about 160,000 troops and millions of tons of military gear
inside Iraq. Getting that force out safely will be a formidable challenge. The
main road south to Kuwait is notoriously vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks.
Soldiers, weapons and vehicles will need to be deployed to secure bases while
airlift and sealift operations are organized. Withdrawal routes will have to be
guarded. The exit must be everything the invasion was not: based on reality and
backed by adequate resources.
The United States should explore using Kurdish territory in the north of Iraq as
a secure staging area. Being able to use bases and ports in Turkey would also
make withdrawal faster and safer. Turkey has been an inconsistent ally in this
war, but like other nations, it should realize that shouldering part of the
burden of the aftermath is in its own interest.
Accomplishing all of this in less than six months is probably unrealistic. The
political decision should be made, and the target date set, now.
The Fight Against Terrorists
Despite President Bushs repeated claims, Al Qaeda had no significant foothold in
Iraq before the invasion, which gave it new base camps, new recruits and new
This war diverted Pentagon resources from Afghanistan, where the military had a
real chance to hunt down Al Qaedas leaders. It alienated essential allies in the
war against terrorism. It drained the strength and readiness of American troops.
And it created a new front where the United States will have to continue to
battle terrorist forces and enlist local allies who reject the idea of an Iraq
hijacked by international terrorists. The military will need resources and bases
to stanch this self- inflicted wound for the foreseeable future.
The Question of Bases
The United States could strike an agreement with the Kurds to create those bases
in northeastern Iraq. Or, the Pentagon could use its bases in countries like
Kuwait and Qatar, and its large naval presence in the Persian Gulf, as staging
There are arguments for, and against, both options. Leaving troops in Iraq might
make it too easy and too tempting to get drawn back into the civil war and
confirm suspicions that Washington's real goal was to secure permanent bases in
Iraq. Mounting attacks from other countries could endanger those nations
The White House should make this choice after consultation with Congress and the
other countries in the region, whose opinions the Bush administration has
essentially ignored. The bottom line: the Pentagon needs enough force to stage
effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq, but not enough
to resume large-scale combat.
The Civil War
One of Mr. Bushs arguments against withdrawal is that it would lead to civil
war. That war is raging, right now, and it may take years to burn out. Iraq may
fragment into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics, and American troops
are not going to stop that from happening.
It is possible, we suppose, that announcing a firm withdrawal date might finally
focus Iraqs political leaders and neighboring governments on reality. Ideally,
it could spur Iraqi politicians to take the steps toward national reconciliation
that they have endlessly discussed but refused to act on.
But it is foolish to count on that, as some Democratic proponents of withdrawal
have done. The administration should use whatever leverage it gains from
withdrawing to press its allies and Iraq's neighbors to help achieve a
Iraq's leaders knowing that they can no longer rely on the Americans to
guarantee their survival might be more open to compromise, perhaps to a
Bosnian-style partition, with economic resources fairly shared but with millions
of Iraqis forced to relocate. That would be better than the slow-motion ethnic
and religious cleansing that has contributed to driving one in seven Iraqis from
The United States military cannot solve the problem. Congress and the White
House must lead an international attempt at a negotiated outcome. To start,
Washington must turn to the United Nations, which Mr. Bush spurned and ridiculed
as a preface to war.
The Human Crisis
There are already nearly two million Iraqi refugees, mostly in Syria and Jordan,
and nearly two million more Iraqis who have been displaced within their country.
Without the active cooperation of all six countries bordering Iraq Turkey, Iran,
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria and the help of other nations, this
disaster could get worse. Beyond the suffering, massive flows of refugees some
with ethnic and political resentments could spread Iraq's conflict far beyond
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia must share the burden of hosting refugees. Jordan and
Syria, now nearly overwhelmed with refugees, need more international help. That,
of course, means money. The nations of Europe and Asia have a stake and should
contribute. The United States will have to pay a large share of the costs, but
should also lead international efforts, perhaps a donors conference, to raise
money for the refugee crisis.
Washington also has to mend fences with allies. There are new governments in
Britain, France and Germany that did not participate in the fight over starting
this war and are eager to get beyond it. But that will still require a measure
of humility and a commitment to multilateral action that this administration has
never shown. And, however angry they were with President Bush for creating this
mess, those nations should see that they cannot walk away from the consequences.
To put it baldly, terrorism and oil make it impossible to ignore.
The United States has the greatest responsibilities, including the admission of
many more refugees for permanent resettlement. The most compelling obligation is
to the tens of thousands of Iraqis of courage and good will translators, embassy
employees, reconstruction workers whose lives will be in danger because they
believed the promises and cooperated with the Americans.
One of the trickiest tasks will be avoiding excessive meddling in Iraq by its
neighbors Americas friends as well as its adversaries.
Just as Iran should come under international pressure to allow Shiites in
southern Iraq to develop their own independent future, Washington must help
persuade Sunni powers like Syria not to intervene on behalf of Sunni Iraqis.
Turkey must be kept from sending troops into Kurdish territories.
For this effort to have any remote chance, Mr. Bush must drop his resistance to
talking with both Iran and Syria. Britain, France, Russia, China and other
nations with influence have a responsibility to help. Civil war in Iraq is a
threat to everyone, especially if it spills across Iraq's borders.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used demagoguery and fear to
quell Americans demands for an end to this war. They say withdrawing will create
bloodshed and chaos and encourage terrorists. Actually, all of that has already
happened the result of this unnecessary invasion and the incompetent management
of this war.
This country faces a choice. We can go on allowing Mr. Bush to drag out this war
without end or purpose. Or we can insist that American troops are withdrawn as
quickly and safely as we can manage with as much effort as possible to stop the
chaos from spreading.