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 Iraq’s 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. Bush’s 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.
Continuing to sacrifice the lives and limbs of American soldiers is
wrong. The war is sapping the strength of the nation’s 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.
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 America’s 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.
Despite President Bush’s repeated claims, Al Qaeda had no significant
foothold in Iraq before the invasion, which gave it new base camps, new
recruits and new prestige.
This war diverted Pentagon resources from Afghanistan, where the
military had a real chance to hunt down Al Qaeda’s 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
One of Mr. Bush’s 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
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.
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.
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.
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.