The facts on the ground are inescapable--the US occupation of Iraq must be
ended. Over the last several weeks, many of the nation's pundits, policy-makers
and military brass have concluded that "the American position is untenable," to
quote former US ambassador to the United Nations and Kerry adviser Richard
Holbrooke. One Pentagon consultant spoke for many in the military when
he referred to Bush's Iraq policy as "Dead Man Walking."
Meanwhile, the Army Times called on Donald Rumsfeld
and other senior defense officials to step aside in the wake of the metastasizing
Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal--"a failure that ran straight to the top."
Support for the occupation among both Iraqis and Americans is also eroding
quickly. Recent Coalition Provisional Authority polls found that 80 percent of
Iraqis distrust the US. And, according to a USA Today/CNN/
Gallup, the majority of Iraqis now want the US to leave Iraq immediately,
while only a third of Iraqis believe the US-led occupation is doing more good
than harm. (And that poll was taken in late March and early April.)
In the United States, the most recent polls found that 60 percent
of Americans think that we've "gotten bogged down in Iraq." Moreover, by a 54
to 44 margin, Americans say that unseating Hussein was not worth the
mounting cost in blood and money.
America's politicians, of course, are trailing behind public opinion. In setting the
parameters of this debate, neo-conservative hawks like Cheney, Rumsfeld and
Wolfowitz–and even some leading Democrats--have presented the world with a
false choice. "Stay the Course," they urge, because if we leave Iraq now, we will
consign the country to civil war and an Iranian-style dictatorship for years to
At this point, there are no good options but Kerry, sadly, has
bought into this assumption by making the case that the US must
remain in Iraq lest it descend into chaos. Shorn of the neocons' pipedreams for a
democratic Iraq, Kerry's rhetoric is, essentially, an
"Internationalization of Staying the Course."
But, by staying the course, America risks doing much more harm than good. We
create new recruiting tools for terrorists in the region with our widespread
abuses and neglect hotbeds of terrorist activity along the Pakistan-Afghan
border. We will simply trap the US and UN in a spiral of unending violence, as
the stand-offs in Najaf and Falluja demonstrate.
And the occupation itself is breeding instability and violence, while
strengthening the most radical Islamic forces. The world will grow even more
cynical about America's global intentions, Iraqi morale will keep plummeting,
and the UN's credibility as an independent body will continue to erode.
While the neocons frame the debate over Iraq as a war between light and
darkness, civilization and terror, democracy and Islamic-fascism, the uprising
against the Americans is, in fact, nationalist in character. War in Iraq has never
offered the hope of finding Osama bin Laden, avenging 9/11 or dealing the
terrorists a major military or psychological blow.
"Iraq's twentieth century resistance to foreign threats has typically been national
in character, not separatist, beginning with the revolts against British occupation
in the 1920s," wrote William Pfaff recently in the International Herald
Tribune. America, Pfaff argues, must leave Iraq soon
based on a strategy of "Iraqi national interest and Iraqi nationalism"--real
sovereignty that grants Iraqis full responsibility for managing their nation's
resources, security and foreign affairs.
Kerry has the opportunity to articulate just such a bold vision--let's call it the
"Internationalization of Withdrawal." The capacity to admit a mistake and change
course for the sake of the nation and the world is the ultimate test of any true
For the sake of our nation's credibility; of the untenable security situation; the
mounting US and Iraqi deaths and casualties; and of the worldwide crisis of
confidence in the United States triggered by Bush's unilateral policies, America
needs a Kerry exit strategy.
Here at home, the political landscape is shifting rapidly to pressure Kerry to
change course. On May 18, thirty-nine groups--organized by the Win Without War coalition--
launched a campaign calling for withdrawal from Iraq. They plan to use email
and telephone campaigns--as well as public protests--to push Kerry and
Democratic members of Congress to craft a credible exit plan.
As one of the key organizers put it, "there's a lot of frustration among some
people that Kerry has not distinguished himself from Bush on this policy." Kerry
should seize the moment, they argue.
Still, many of the coalition's leaders intend to vote for him in November--and
not Ralph Nader, who has called for the US to pull out
of Iraq in six months. As someone involved in Win Without War's work made
clear: "We do not wish to complicate or oppose" Kerry's campaign. "But the
peace movement must stand for what it believes is right.and become an
independent factor that politicians cannot take for granted. We appreciate
Senator Kerry's criticism of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, but we not
agree that more American troops should be sent to that unlucky country. We
hope Senator Kerry will remember his Vietnam experience as he reflects on the
crisis in Iraq."
The same day Win Without War
launched its campaign, two leading foreign policy establishment figures
called on Kerry to craft an exit strategy. In an op-ed in
Tuesday's Washington Post, James Steinberg, former deputy national
security adviser in the Clinton Administration, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue that it is critical to set a date to get
out. (Both men have advised Kerry.)
Kerry now has the opportunity to join not only a swelling movement for
withdrawal, but also to ally himself with many leading military officials--and
with the increasingly demoralized US occupation forces and their families--who
are saying that this is a war we cannot win, and one that will bleed both the
American forces as well as the Iraqi people. It is clear that only the Iraqi people
can successfully fight for their own future.
Kerry can say that he agrees with a majority of Americans that we were deceived
about WMDs, credibly declare victory by calling for early elections to be
administered by the United Nations or other international organizations and
endorse a hand-off of genuine sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
As soon as those elections are over, our job would be done. We don't need long-
term bases in Iraq, and we should respect the Iraqi people's right to self-
determination. Kerry should make the case that by leaving Iraq quickly and
responsibly, America will improve its security, not weaken it.
If he can muster the courage, Kerry certainly has the background to take on this
president and re-frame this debate. He also has the moral authority to do what
is right for America and reject the politics of caution that so far has defined his
campaign and disappointed so many supporters. Kerry saved the lives of his
fellow soldiers in Vietnam and later was the eloquent and moderate leader of the
veterans' antiwar movement.
While I still strongly believe that Ralph Nader has made a terrible
mistake by running in a year when all energy must be focused on defeating
Bush, he is now challenging Democrats to give Americans a clear choice in Iraq.
Kerry would be wise to offer some bold ideas for creating a smarter, safer
security policy and giving the Iraqi people a genuine opportunity to figure out
their own future.
Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since January 1995.
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