The war debate in Washington is bogged down. Partisan rancor is one reason why, and bipartisan desire for US hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf is another. But many Americans are vexed by a nobler concern: that a “precipitous” US departure from Iraq would leave intensified civil war, ethnic-sectarian cleansing and massive refugee flows in its wake. This concern is legitimate.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that Iraq’s civil war and humanitarian emergency have grown steadily worse as the US military deployment there wears on. For tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Iraqi civilian dead and more than 4 million Iraqi displaced, the calamity has already arrived. And it continues during the “surge,” the colorful charts of Gen. David Petraeus notwithstanding. According to the Associated Press, more civilians—1,809—were killed in August than in any other month of 2007, and according to the UN, every month an additional 10,000 or more Iraqis flee their homes seeking refuge. Neither Petraeus nor the Bush administration has provided one convincing reason why the surge can put an end to this strife.
A sadder fact, indeed, is that the US occupation of Iraq feeds the civil war. It does so both directly, because the US military is “standing up” security forces of the new Iraqi government that double as sectarian death squads, and indirectly, because US occupation is a major grievance of the Sunni Arab militias fighting the Shiite and Kurdish parties in power in the Green Zone. No one should be fooled into thinking that this grievance has gone away by the stand of Sunni Arab groups against al-Qaeda. As shown by the killing of Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, the sheikh photographed with a smiling George W. Bush during the president’s Labor Day junket to al-Anbar province, it remains deadly dangerous for Iraqis to consort with the main foreign invaders.
Prolonging the occupation, in short, merely postpones the consequences of ending it. It is long past time for both parties in Washington to quit calibrating the effects of the war on their political fortunes, and start contemplating what the US can do to minimize those consequences.
The US should first cease its own offensive operations in Iraq, and desist from training and arming Iraqi militias wearing the uniforms of the nascent army and security forces. Then, after announcing the firm intention to leave, the US should allow the UN to broker a ceasefire among the Iraqi factions, to be followed by a pan-Iraqi summit (without any Washington-driven deadlines) on sharing power and natural resources. Of course, such endeavors will be difficult and hardliners will try to derail them, but they deserve a chance to succeed.
Outside the borders of Iraq, the US should sit down, again under UN auspices, with Iraq’s neighbors for extensive talks on eliminating external interference in Iraqi affairs. All countries should pledge to interdict weapons and money headed into the hands of combatants in the civil war, and decline to back any Iraqi faction bent on imposing its own will. Of necessity, such talks would require the White House to drop its hostile rhetoric aimed at Iran and Syria, and agree to bargain in good faith with those countries about bilateral sticking points. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries should forgive the entirety of the debt bequeathed to Iraq by the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.
Lastly, the US should lead efforts to extend UN protection and aid to all of the Iraqis made refugees since the 2003 invasion, whether they have fled their homeland or not. Jordan, Syria and other countries hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees should receive whatever amounts are necessary to care for the forced migrants. No doubt the US will pay the lion’s share, and that is as it should be: The war does not merit an “open-ended commitment,” but the refugees do.
But none of this can occur without a timetable for a complete US withdrawal from Iraq, simply because the world is not going to help the Bush administration fix a country it persists in breaking. The United States cannot bring peace to Iraq by itself, but there will be no chance for peace until Washington gets out of the way.