The United States went to war in Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and depose Saddam Hussein. No weapons have been found; Saddam is under arrest. The time has come to declare “mission accomplished” and announce a deadline for bringing the troops home. The administration has made a mess of its Iraq campaign, and it will be difficult and costly to disengage, but disengage we must. The nation must not be allowed to sink any deeper into the military and moral quagmire that is Iraq. There are no longer any good options available. An orderly exit is the least costly alternative for both the United States and Iraq.
The administration is beginning to understand it must prepare for an end to its effort. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other G-8 foreign ministers belonging to the coalition announced on May 14 their governments’ willingness to withdraw if the temporary Iraqi government scheduled to take office June 30 requests it. In and outside government, withdrawal is now openly discussed. Even many commentators on the right are now declaring the war a mistake. George Will wrote, “This administration cannot be trusted to govern, if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts.” David Brooks concluded succinctly, “For us to win, we must lose.”
With the help of the international community, everything should be done to institute an elected Iraqi government and to strengthen it so it can reduce chaos and secure the peace. To do so, as the administration has begun to recognize, more U.S. troops will be needed for the short term. But to regain the support of moderate Iraqis and the cooperation of the international community, the inevitable end of U.S. dominance must be apparent to all. A clear exit strategy must be formulated, including inclusion of a U.S. troop contingent under U.N. command and naming a firm date for U.S. withdrawal.
Military authorities themselves say that we are winning tactically but losing strategically. Our troops were never properly trained to occupy, police or carry on nation-building in a hostile environment. The very idea of nation-building was ridiculed by the neoconservatives who are now attempting it.
Meanwhile, the prisoner-abuse scandal continues to expand. It has widened to include other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, a secret C.I.A. prison system, covert kidnapings, “renditions” (handing prisoners over to cooperative third-country intelligence officials) and secret prisons outside the military chain of command. Suspicion has inevitably reached up the chain of command to touch General Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez.
Neither courts-martial nor resignations can restore faith in America’s good intentions. Only an orderly and timely withdrawal can rescue any hope of establishing a stable, self-governing Iraq, preventing an endless, ever worsening war and limiting the spread of Islamist terrorism. The world, especially Iraq, is less safe now than it was before the war. An Iraqi government will have a difficult time holding down the forces the war has unchained. Without the provocative U.S. military presence, however, Iraqi officials will have a better chance of checking Islamic militancy and terrorism. Neither the U.S. military nor the Iraqi people ought to be made to pay any more for the tragic mistakes of this administration.
Others may contend that withdrawal is irresponsible. We, however, propose withdrawal in the spirit of responsibility. A force capable of maintaining order until an Iraqi government can provide security is clearly necessary, and the United States, having brought about this chaotic situation, is under obligation to provide financial and logistical support for such an international effort. But the United States does not possess the capacity to bring about orderly change unilaterally by military force. As much as we may want to think the U.S. military presence is indispensable to establishing stability for Iraq, that very presence has become an obstacle to peace. Without the capacity to establish stable order in Iraq, the responsible course for the United States is to withdraw and to assist others to make the peace that eludes us.
At some point, there must be a reckoning. The errors made in the justification, planning and execution of the Iraq war are of horrendous proportions. The men and women responsible for this delusional “war of choice” must be held accountable. In time the nation, including members of both parties in Congress who supported the administration’s war, must recognize its responsibility for this unjust war. No more blood should be shed to preserve face for a neoconservative ideology that has exploited the emotions evoked by Sept. 11 in order to pursue a prior ideological goal. Unable to impose a peace of our design, there is no honorable course but to withdraw with all due speed.