from the October 12, 2006 edition -

Bush created a mess in Iraq. Here's how to clean it up.

It's time to pull our troops out of Iraq - and to hold our leaders accountable.

By Helena Cobban


The continued US troop presence in Iraq is inflicting great harm on Iraqis and US service members. It's also distracting US attention from serious challenges elsewhere, including North Korea.

Inside Iraq, life has become more insecure every year since 2003 and is now at a crisis. The promises that President Bush and his officials once made about helping Iraqis build a stable democracy are distant memories, shredded by the horrifying violence of many kinds that stalks the country.

It is time to pull our troops out of Iraq. It is also time, here at home, to hold accountable those who made the disastrous decisions that brought our forces there in the first place. The Nov. 7 elections are a good opportunity to begin this work.

The cost of war

Mr. Bush's quite voluntary decision to invade and occupy Iraq has cost the United States dearly. We're now paying $7 billion per month to maintain the troop presence there - and the nonfinancial costs have also been huge. More than 2,740 US service members and scores of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been killed, while scores of thousands more have been wounded.

Many Iraqi communities have been torn apart by newfound political and sectarian divisions and violence. Nearly 80 percent of Iraqis say that the US military is provoking more conflict than it is preventing, according to a survey conducted last month by More than 70 percent want US forces withdrawn within a year.

US engagement there has greatly diminished America's standing in the world. It has significantly reduced the ability of the US and its allies to mobilize the resources needed to meet urgent challenges in Afghanistan and North Korea. In North Korea, the ever-volatile leadership detonated its first nuclear device Monday, and in Afghanistan, the Taliban have now reemerged as a serious force in some parts of the country.

The challenge now is how to get out of this mess in Iraq. I hope that a newly invigorated Congress can work closely with the president - but asserting itself where necessary - to bring about a pullout of US troops that is speedy, orderly, total, and generous.

Yes, we Americans do "owe" the long-suffering Iraqis a lot for the many harms we have inflicted on their country. That's why our pullout has to be as financially and politically generous to Iraqis as possible. But that does not mean we have a responsibility to keep our troops inside Iraq to try to "fix" the country. At this point, our military seems uniquely unqualified to play that role. Even Iraq's once pro- American vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, now says the US has been an important contributor to his country's problems.

If Washington announces a firm and short timetable for pulling the troops out of Iraq, we can expect that Iraq's most significant leaders will work hard to make that happen in an orderly and peaceful way. As they do so, they may also discover new ways of working with each other - and we should encourage such cooperation.

Neighboring countries will also need to be involved, both in facilitating the US exit and in negotiating rules of the game in Iraq and in the broader region in the postwithdrawal phase.

Washington should ask the UN to convene two urgent conferences to help plan for the withdrawal: one for Iraq's internal factions, and one for Iraq, its neighbors, and the US. The latter conference would involve Iran and Syria, along with pro-US countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey. So yes, to start to solve Iraq, the US needs to draw Iran into the process. This will mark a big strategic change in the broader Gulf region. But realistically, what is the alternative?

If the administration policy escalates to the point of a military attack against Iran, the results will almost certainly be far worse than those that flowed from the invasion of Iraq. That is why I find it hard to believe that the administration will attack Iran, though it remains a possibility.

Turn away from militarism

Washington needs a deep reconsideration not just of how it engages with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but of how it responds to large-scale international challenges more generally. Under this president, the administration's international engagements have been skewed very strongly toward military action, while the solid, steady work of building international relationships and institutions has been derided and downgraded - with the results we now see in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and elsewhere. Redirecting Washington's focus toward diplomacy has never been more necessary. It is the only way, now, to restore order and stability to a world system that has been badly battered by the reckless US militarism of the past five years.

Helena Cobban is the author of "Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes."