This column was written by John Nichols.
The debate over the war in Iraq follows a yellowing script: the minute someone suggests that the US move to withdraw its troops, war supporters cry "Havoc!" True to form, when no less a figure than Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stated he wants a timeline for a US pullout, John McCain summoned the specter of dire consequences. "I've always said we'll come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable," McCain said, in a major foreign policy speech on July 15. Barack Obama affirmed his support for a withdrawal timetable, adding that the United States must "get out as carefully as we were careless getting in." Obama's position is the correct one, but he, like many other war critics, has done too little to counter the refrain that withdrawal is simply "cutting and running," a recipe for disaster.
To answer that line of attack was the charge of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq, whose report appeared in June. In March, the Task Force, of which I was a member, convened a group of Middle East and security policy experts on the premise that the next President will indeed set a timetable for extracting US soldiers entirely from their Mesopotamian entanglement. Our Task Force did not seek to restate the case, well-argued by now, for the necessity of withdrawal. Nor did we rehash the reasons why the worst-case scenarios of intensified chaos in Iraq and endemic regional warfare are far from inevitable. Rather, we asked ourselves: What concrete steps can the United States take, immediately and during the withdrawal, to minimize further bloodshed and, instead, encourage peace and stability in Iraq? And how can our nation and others contribute to Iraq's eventual recovery from its excruciating ordeal?
We approached this charge with a sense of humility. After five years of occupation and civil war, not to mention the preceding decades of war, sanctions and dictatorship, Iraq is a traumatized and politically fragmented country. Since 2003, neighboring states have intervened in Iraq's internal conflicts to protect their own interests--and they may be tempted to intervene further when the US military departs. On the diplomatic front, Washington's credibility is badly eroded by a war that most of the world opposed.
Nevertheless, we believe there are many steps that can and should be taken. In the short term, to prevent an abrupt power vacuum, there should be a brief extension of the UN mandate that gives the US-dominated "Coalition forces" in Iraq their legal cover and is due to expire in December. We urge the next President to pursue a sweeping new United Nations mandate, to take effect in 2009, predicated upon a timetable of twelve to eighteen months for a complete withdrawal of US soldiers and private contractors. That mandate should define the contours of international participation in Iraqi reconciliation, reconstruction and humanitarian aid. Simultaneously, the next President should inform the Maliki government that the United States is adopting a stance of neutrality and non-interference in Iraqi politics. Lasting security is unachievable absent a political compromise among Iraq's various factions, and that compromise is impossible as long as America and its favored Iraqi politicians are calling the shots.
So Washington must let the UN do its job. With the US pullout underway, the UN should sponsor a pan-Iraqi conference in which the constituent parties of the Maliki government would sit down as equals with Sadrists, Sunni Arab insurgents and others (except the small, nihilistic Al Qaeda bands) who have been marginalized by the post-Saddam political transition. The summit should seek an immediate official ceasefire and consensus on the type of multinational force that a genuine government of national unity might request to keep the post-reconciliation peace. The Task Force does not presume to prescribe the shape of an Iraqi national compact, but at a minimum it will need to address questions of federalism, revision of the 2005 constitution, de-Baathification and oil revenue distribution.
National reconciliation in Iraq will be arduous work. The United States can help it along by pressing its regional allies to stem the flows of arms and foreign fighters that have exacerbated the country's internecine fighting. The next President must also recognize that the Bush Administration's project of "standing up" Iraqi security forces has itself armed and trained combatants in the civil war. Responsibility for provisioning the nascent Iraqi army should be transferred to a UN special envoy, and assistance to units should be contingent upon their meeting standards of professionalism, respect for rule of law and non-sectarian composition. With lead time and US-led investment, much can be done to build the UN's capacity to perform these functions.
But perhaps the single most important thing the United States can do to aid Iraqi national reconciliation, after withdrawal itself, is to drop the Bush Administration's belligerence toward Iran and Syria. If an arms embargo is not to leak, these two countries must help enforce it. If Iraqi factions are not to revert to zero-sum communal logic, Iran in particular must stop playing favorites. Yet the incentives for Iran and Syria are now all running the other way. To secure their cooperation, Washington will need the leverage that only wide-ranging and direct diplomatic engagement can provide. It may also need to offer carrots to its allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to cement a united front of principled non-interference in Iraq.
It is fashionable among Democrats to decry the unspent billions in Iraqi accounts while US taxpayer dollars continue to fund reconstruction projects. Given that Congress just allocated an additional $162 billion for prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dyspepsia is surely misplaced. Yet while withdrawal will certainly cost less than continued occupation, meeting long-term US responsibilities to Iraq will not be cheap. It is reasonable that the Iraqis should pay their operating expenses, but to ask them to repair the damage done by the US-led sanctions, invasion and occupation is surely wrong.
The United States should be prepared to donate heavily to a UN peacekeeping force, should the Iraqis request one; to programs for disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating Iraqi militias; and to an Iraq Development Fund that bankrolls a labor-intensive public works program, addresses the roots of food insecurity and strengthens Iraqi civil society organizations. Washington should push Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates and forgive the debts accrued by Saddam Hussein. The biggest debt of all is owed to the more than 4 million Iraqis who are refugees or internally displaced persons as a result of the Bush Administration's war of choice. The United States should plan to contribute significantly to UN and Iraqi government aid agencies caring for the displaced, and send substantial sums to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to help the Iraqis living there, until such time as they can return home or resettle.
We do not dismiss the contingencies that will bedevil the best of plans and intentions for a responsible policy toward Iraq. Yet the chief uncertainty, on which all else depends, is whether the next President, whoever he may be, will heed the wishes of most Americans and Iraqis, at last, and order a full US withdrawal.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation