The most important question is therefore not when or how the troops will leave Iraq, but what kind of Iraq we hope to leave behind when they do. Iraq will not be the ideal democracy originally envisioned by the Bush administration, but a political settlement is still possible; and in helping the Iraqi people to reach such a settlement, national reconciliation must be our first concern.
The work of reconciliation has been sluggish at best under the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Malaki, yet it is the obvious precondition for any meaningful progress. The United States has also failed to help the Iraqis move toward reconciliation: non-sectarian governance; amnesty for former enemies (especially members of Saddams Baath party); and, perhaps most important, a meaningful oil revenue-sharing law that would give all the principals an investment in one state. None of these actions are easy, but all of them are necessary. The disarmament of Iraqs sectarian militias and therefore the peace and stability of the country depend on them.
The United States, accordingly, must admit its failure to help effect reconciliation and ask the world for renewed support. We must undertake the diplomatic offensive called for by the Iraq Study Group in 2006. This diplomatic initiative should involve Iraqs neighbors. They must be persuaded to exert their influence with Iraqs various sectarian groups. We should also ensure that the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have the resources on the ground in Baghdad to provide their good offices to bring the parties together. Religious peace is a precondition of civil peace.
The United States will need to be most attentive to Iraqs immediate neighbors, including Syria and especially Iran. Like it or not, because of geography and the growing and frequently nefarious influence of these states within Iraq, there will be no lasting peace without some form of cooperation from both of them. This will require that the Bush administration back away from its bellicose rhetoric toward Iran in the near term and move toward détente in the long term. If we can talk to North Korea, we can talk to Iran and Syria.
The United States should also not hesitate to enlist the help of the United Nations and the world beyond the Middle East. The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has hinted recently that France may have a constructive role to play in resolving the conflict. This proposal should be pursued along with the possibility of an increased peacemaking role for the European Union, an organization with enormous influence with Turkey, one of Iraqs nervous and volatile neighbors.
These steps toward a political settlement will need to be accompanied by a rethinking of our military presence in Iraq. A precipitous and immediate withdrawal is clearly neither wise nor practical, but neither is the presidents seemingly open-ended commitment. The U.S. military presence in Iraq is the principal remaining source of our influence. For this reason, the Iraq Study Group concluded, the question of the future U.S. force presence must be on the table for discussion as the national reconciliation dialogue takes place. Its inclusion will increase the possibilities of success.
The long-term political objectives of both the United States and the Iraqi government, as well as the need to thwart Al Qaeda in Iraq, will require some U.S. military presence in the area for the foreseeable future. But because this administration has until recently refused even to consider redeployment or withdrawal of significant numbers of U.S. troops, the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq has been neither a stick nor a carrot. In order to provide an additional incentive for the various parties to reach a political settlement, the United States must articulate a clear plan for serious troop reductions and the redeployment of U.S. forces within Iraq away from primarily policing activities to more support and training of Iraqi forces.
It is not unpatriotic to admit that we are not succeeding. As Ken Burns has shown in his film The War, now being shown on PBS, realism and strategic adaptability were vital components of the Allied victory in World War II. If the United States is able to face the facts and marshal the resources to support a lasting political settlement, it may still be possible to achieve an outcome in Iraq worthy of the dignity of the Iraqi people and the sacrifice of American lives.