The war in Iraq has become a costly trap from which the United States should extricate itself soon. With the election only a few weeks away, the Republican administration insists on “staying the course,” on denouncing all the different insurgents as desperadoes, and on reassuring the public that things are improving just as more than one thousand American soldiers have died and attacks are sharply increasing. Those who have put their hopes in a change of administration have several reasons for being frustrated and disappointed.

First, the Democratic team has seemed anxious not to upset voters who have been persuaded by the administration that the “War on Terror” depends on the American “liberation” of Iraq and do not want to hear about the limits of American power. John Edwards has talked of ultimate victory, and John Kerry has crippled his campaign by his all-too-calculated contradictions, especially when he stated that he would have voted for the congressional resolution that granted power to initiate war to the President even if he had known in October 2002 what is known now. He should simply have observed instead, as Senator Hillary Clinton did, that had we known then what we know now, there would have been no resolution and no vote.

The two Democratic candidates have been critical of the ways in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq and bungled the occupation. But they could have put forward much earlier arguments that Kerry was only beginning to make in late September.

(1) Saddam’s regime did not present a clear and present danger to the United States;

(2) no proof of collusion against the US between Saddam and al-Qaeda has ever been shown;

(3) the switch from the war on terrorism, which led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the war in Iraq was a highly imprudent diversion of resources, and a contribution to—indeed a godsend for—terrorists, a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy;

(4) the lofty goal of liberating the Iraqis cannot be achieved by imposing a regime of exiles through military force, in circumstances drastically different from those of 1945 Germany and Japan;

(5) the awarding of lucrative contracts exclusively to American companies has thrown a deep shadow over the idealistic language of the administration;

(6) the willful decision to limit the size of American forces in Iraq (for reasons that were never made entirely clear) was an unexpected boon to insurgents, since the US forces could not deal with the acute problems that were inevitable in a partly devastated country;

(7) American expectations that the occupation would be popular were based on a mixture of ignorance, hubris, and misinformation provided by exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi;

(8) a genuine concern with liberation would have required close US collaboration with internal factions, restraint in the use of destructive tactics, prevention of looting, and scrupulous respect for international obligations, especially toward prisoners;

(9) during most of the period between the summer of 2002 and the summer of 2004, the Bush administration, and especially the civilians in charge of the Pentagon, treated Congress as a minor nuisance, and evidently thought the public could easily be deceived. It is still doing its best to fool the voters.

Instead of presenting a convincing argument, the positions of the Kerry campaign on Iraq suffer from a variety of flaws and unconfronted questions:

(1) Kerry has repeatedly claimed that he would do a better job than Bush in rallying other countries to a genuine coalition that would ensure security in Iraq. This is wishful thinking. Muslim countries have shown no enthusiasm for helping Iraqi authorities as long as the Coalition is still under US control. The NATO countries that favored the Coalition are already in it (or, in Spain’s case, were), and, except for the UK, they provide very little by way of military force. France and Germany are unlikely to join. The French don’t want to give the Muslim world the impression that the “West” is opposed to “Islam.” Aware of the insurgents’ attacks on the US and its protégés, most states are not likely to share the human and financial costs of a counterinsurgency war, certainly not as long as it is waged under American command. Whether NATO will show any eagerness for training Iraqi security forces or guarding Iraq’s borders is still not clear. No doubt, many governments would be better disposed toward President Kerry than toward President Bush. But decisions touching on war and peace tend to be based on realities on the ground and at home, not on whether one leader is more agreeable than another.

(2) Kerry has been largely silent about the relations between American-led forces in Iraq and the interim government headed by Iyad Allawi, and also the transitional government that will emerge from the assembly that is supposed to be elected before the end of January 2005. Will the American-led forces continue to decide on military operations by themselves, even if one or both of these governments object to them?


(3) The hope that Iraqi security forces can be recruited and trained effectively so far has turned out to be illusory. Training is not all; training and a good salary may be better, but ultimately motivation is essential, and the fear of being killed or wounded by insurgents and only tepidly supported by the population may well cause newly trained police and troops to fade away, as many have already done.

(4) What does Kerry believe will happen if American forces either are increased during his first term or remain at their present levels for several more years? In contrast to American policy during the spring of 2003, should there not be planning for a worst-case situation?

The facts are that the number of attacks on American and other forces and installations has multiplied by five since Bush stood under a sign announcing “Mission Accomplished” and proclaimed the “end of major combat operations” in Iraq; that a number of cities in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere are not under the control of the “Coalition” or of the Iraqi interim government; and that the US and Prime Minister Allawi now face a deep dilemma. If they leave insurgents in control, whether in Sunni territory or in Sadr City in Baghdad, more Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis will flock to these places, some with increasingly potent weapons. If attempts are made to regain control of the cities and districts now held by hostile forces, the number of Iraqi dead and wounded will rise, fewer Iraqi civilians will side with the Americans, and more will resent their heavy weapons and their air strikes against fellow Iraqis (even if they might dislike the insurgents or wish that the latter had chosen other places to fight). To dismantle and disarm private militias would require either a large-scale American military operation or willingness on the part of Iraqi authorities to appear as the submissive clients of the American occupiers. This seems likely to encourage the rebellions. Isn’t this what has happened in cases as diverse as French Indochina, Vietnam, and Algeria?


Raymond Aron’s advice to the Prince’s would-be counselor was that he should put himself in the Prince’s place, and should not look at things from the perspective of the radical critic, the idealist, the perfectionist, or the enemy. Fine, as long as one remembers that Aron himself, a columnist for the conservative daily Le Figaro, had early concluded (and wrote accordingly, but not in Le Figaro) that the only way for the French to deal with Algeria was to grant it independence—a notion that neither the right nor most of the left found palatable at the time. Aron’s lesson was that there are times when tendencies to temporize and hope for incremental improvements can lead to disaster.

At present, there are many who believe that the US has to “stay the course.” Its credibility is thought to be at stake, especially after it failed to support the insurrections against Saddam Hussein that the US itself encouraged the Kurds and the Shiites to undertake in 1991. Moreover, civilian supporters of the war in the Pentagon continue to hold out hopes for building a democracy in Iraq that would somehow serve as a model for other governments in the Middle East. They therefore believe that the US must not only help the interim government to defeat the insurgents but stay in Iraq as long as any new government needs protection.

Such hopes are being demolished by the realities of Iraqi hostility to the US and its protégés. The spread of terrorism makes it difficult to distinguish either the jihadists from outside the country or the postwar followers of bin Laden in Iraq from other Iraqis opposed to the occupation. Thus the administration’s “war on terror” is achieving the very connections between the Iraqis and members of al-Qaeda that Bush falsely told the public justified the war. As a recent study convincingly argues, the prolonged occupation is “an open invitation for a steady build up of grassroots Muslim anger,”1 and a breeding ground for terrorism. Much of the insurgency, moreover, has been aimed not only at American forces but also at oil pipelines and ordinary technicians, foreign private contractors, and Iraqis working for and with the Americans. It may well be that many Iraqis currently opposed to the occupation will be increasingly revolted by the killings of fellow Iraqis by the insurgents. In that case, an Iraqi policy aimed at defeating insurgents may become popular or at least accepted. But as long as such a policy depends on intervention by US forces, it is unlikely to crush the rebellion. Although the US is increasing its efforts to train security forces, as the Financial Times recently commented, they “cannot stand alongside a US military that daily rains thousands of tons of projectiles and high explosives on their compatriots.”2


There are therefore good reasons for calling for an end to the occupation. As in Palestine, the occupation is the main cause of the current troubles. This certainly does not mean that the attacks will end if we leave; but whatever we do to try to resolve internal conflicts is likely to backfire. Continuing US military control, direct or indirect, will intensify anti-Americanism (as in post-1965 South Vietnam) and provide a training ground for terrorism, both indigenous and from other countries. American interests would be better served by a shift of US resources toward two objectives. The first is the fight against al-Qaeda and its allies throughout the world, which have become more diversified and decentralized. They continue to receive financial and other support from powerful groups in officially pro-American states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They are not easily defeated by high-powered military operations, and they continue to recruit members from extremist madrasas, whether in Pakistan or in other Muslim countries.

The second objective would be a much larger program aimed at rebuilding the economic infrastructure of Iraq and at establishing new institutions there, but only with the help of other states experienced in state-building. The departure of American and British forces would make it easier for countries that have not supported the war to provide assistance, including police training, under UN auspices. The US, for its part, should make available the rest of the $18 billion appropriated by Congress for reconstruction in Iraq, of which no more than $1 billion has so far been spent. The study I mentioned earlier is persuasive in arguing that “a permanent (US) military garrison in Iraq” would “impose enormous costs and a host of new headaches for the American taxpayers and the military alike,” and that the American military presence in Iraq contributes “to a worsening perception of the United States by a growing number of Muslims”3 (and, I would add, non-Muslims). In its struggle against terrorism, the US should give priority to threats posed by Islamic jihadists (the most dangerous for US and Western interests), and it should devote far more attention to a permanent solution for the Palestinian problem, along the lines almost agreed upon at Taba in 2001 and in the Geneva Accords negotiated by independent Palestinians and Israelis.

What would such an exit strategy mean, concretely? It would require a statement by the Coalition of its intention to withdraw its forces by a certain date—for example within six months of the election of a new assembly and the government that emanates from it. If elections can take place in January 2005, a phased withdrawal should be completed by the end of June. While the present interim government is in place, the US should take measures that have genuine political and symbolic significance: the US embassy would reduce its scale of operations; formal US advisers would be gradually withdrawn; the US would make commitments not to launch military operations unless they are requested by the elected Iraqi government.

The US should leave the preparation and supervision of the coming elections to the UN, which could cancel or replace the decisions made by the election commissions set up by Paul Bremer. Only the known criminals of the Baath army and bureaucracy ought to be excluded from voting, as well as terrorists condemned for their actions. It is particularly important that the US allow the Iraqis to decide on the nature of their future government and their new permanent constitution, in which such issues as Kurdish claims to autonomy will have to be resolved. During this period, the training of Iraqi security forces may have to remain a Coalition task, but it will be more successful if it is monitored and supervised by the UN.

After the elections, the withdrawal of Coalition forces would begin. They would be replaced by Iraqis and by the forces of any country—including the US and the UK—acceptable to the new Iraqi government that agrees to participate in an international peacemaking and peacekeeping force. That force would be established with the consent of the new Iraqi government and placed under the control of the UN. The commander in chief should be Iraqi. The new government would have the right to renegotiate the contracts awarded by the Coalition and to decide on a permanent status for the oil industry. No foreign bases would be established in Iraq.

Such a policy could present more difficulties than opportunities for anti-American insurgents and terrorists. They could no longer argue that Iraq is an American imperial outpost with a government chosen by Washington. If they continue their attacks, and if it can be shown that a large number among them are from outside Iraq, they would risk unifying Iraq’s political and security forces against them. Successful counterinsurgency requires popular support, and foreign occupation inhibits such support. Conversely, the longer the occupation forces remain in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for Americans to extricate themselves; they are likely to be caught up in conflicts among political factions, tribal leaders, religious groups, and ethnic forces eager either to oppose or to court the occupiers.

Such a plan should not depend on elections taking place by January 2005. They may be delayed. Sunni Iraq may be in too turbulent a condition for its citizens to be able to participate. It should be clear that no election that leaves out a large part of the group that was dominant under Saddam Hussein would have much validity or authority. Moreover, an election excluding the Sunni region would leave two large groups in contention: a Kurdish minority that is practically self-governing—and will resist any constitutional regime other than a loose federation—and a Shiite majority whose leaders are reluctant to grant the Kurds autonomous status and to compromise their claims to majority rule.

Thus one central issue in the coming months will be the future of the Sunni dissidents and their control of several towns; another will be the future of the radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The plan I suggest here would explicitly transfer to the UN the power to negotiate with Iraqi insurgents concerning the conditions under which they would participate in the elections. Attempts at reconquering dissident strongholds by armed force—which would have to be largely American—would not only lead to more Iraqi casualties and “collateral damage” but leave a significant part of the population in a sullen and angry mood of defeat and humiliation.

A policy that seeks accommodation with some elements of the anti-American insurgency is not a policy of weakness: it is with one’s enemies, not with one’s supporters (and former collaborators), that one has to make peace, as De Gaulle understood in Algeria. In view of the lack of confidence of these enemies both in the US and in the interim government, the burden of negotiation will have to fall on the UN, whose mandate needs to be made far more precise and comprehensive than in the resolution of June 2004. If the US decides it must prepare for the elections by using strong force against its foes, it may establish only a “peace of the graveyards” as a prelude to voting. On the other hand, if the US decides to postpone the elections for any considerable period, this would only prolong the agony of suppressing the insurgents who are causing the delay. It thus seems crucial that the UN have as much authority as possible to organize the elections.

It may be that UN efforts will fail, and that the secretary-general will conclude that no safe and reliable elections can be held by the end of January. Should this happen, the US should transfer the control of security to the UN-sponsored and commanded security force I have described. It should begin withdrawing some of its own forces, and keep to the deadline of the end of June 2005 or to a deadline close to it.

No doubt such a course entails risks. A breakup of the country can by no means be ruled out. Although an elected Iraqi government would be in a strong position to ask other countries, especially in the Muslim world, to provide the forces needed by the UN, it may find those countries unwilling to risk their soldiers’ lives. Conflict over a new constitution could lead to a civil war, or to foreign interventions, say, by Iran helping the Iraqi Shiite clerics, or by Turkey trying to prevent Kurdish secession. Such risks partly explain why the first Bush administration was reluctant to intervene in the domestic affairs of Iraq after its victory in 1991. Preventing a bloody disintegration of Iraq, and preventing a takeover of Iraq by Islamic extremist terrorists if new Iraqi security forces prove to be inadequate, should be left to international diplomacy by the UN and regional organizations, as well as to international peacemaking forces provided by them and by individual countries. Both the EU and other countries have pragmatic incentives to support such a plan. Prolonged civil conflict could threaten not only oil supplies from Iraq but also the stability of Saudi Arabia, with the world’s largest oil reserves.

Such an American policy would mean giving up some of the goals the Bush administration announced when it decided to invade Iraq. It would mean abandoning the hope of transforming the entire Arab world, beginning with Iraq, and thus changing the balance of forces between Sharon’s Israel and its enemies. It would mean recognizing that change in countries such as Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia will be, at best, slow and gradual, and that democracy cannot be implanted surgically in countries that have no experience with it or preparation for it, although this does not mean denying support for forces of reform and progress. It would mean giving up the less-talked-about but central US aim of turning Iraq into a US-dominated satellite, with American bases, American companies in charge of its oil, and a compliant regime.

There are excellent reasons for repudiating this anachronistic attempt to create an extension of America’s empire. Americans will be able to argue that they helped Iraq decisively by eliminating Saddam (at a heavy cost in international support and prestige), gave Iraq back to its people, and that it is now up to the Iraqis to make a success of their new situation with the help of the international community whenever it is needed. The best course for the US is to avoid being trapped in the vicious circle of counterinsurgency warfare, and to shift resources toward aid for reconstruction and development—which has been scandalously lagging so far—as well as to take part in genuinely international peacemaking and peacekeeping, if the Iraqis call for American participation. It is neither ignoble nor cowardly for a nation to recognize that it has overreached itself and that the time has come to give up an attempt at remolding a country that—apart from its exiles—had not asked the US to take it over (partly because when anti-Saddam rebellions had broken out before, we did nothing to help) and to concentrate instead on repairing some of the damage the war has done.

But Iraq is not the only stake. Remaining trapped among equally unsavory choices would weigh heavily on US foreign policy in general. The strategy of withdrawal outlined here would aim at reconnecting the US with moderate Arab opinion, at a time when US policy seems increasingly to consider Arabs and Muslims largely as potential terrorists. That policy encourages extremism and anti-Americanism by actions that range from unpunished torture in Iraqi prisons to the recent revocation of the visa of a leading Islamic thinker—Tariq Ramadan—who had been invited to teach at Notre Dame University. The US should be making it clear that the necessary war on terrorism does not mean giving carte blanche to the brutal domination of Palestinians by Ariel Sharon or of the Chechens by Vladimir Putin. Withdrawal from Iraq would also make more possible a reconciliation with friends and allies shocked by Washington’s recent unilateralism and repudiation of international obliga-tions, and thus do much to restore—not to reduce—American credibility and “soft power” in the world. Recognizing the limits of America’s vast military power might, paradoxically, do more than anything else to increase American influence in the world.

Withdrawal from Iraq, combined with a new effort by the US, the UN, the EU countries, and Russia to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to create a livable Palestinian state, would mark a return to reality, to good sense, and to a moral politics.

—September 22, 2004

This Issue

October 21, 2004