All the study groups, all the Council on Foreign Relations white papers, and all the magazine symposia in the world won't change the equation: There is no policy for Iraq that will provide moral and strategic satisfaction and no reason to believe that we might achieve something that could be plausibly described as victory. The coming debate over timetables and troop levels will likely generate much anger, shattering post-election illusions of bipartisanship and provoking intra-party squabbles. But, in the end, this struggle will be over the difference between a largely intolerable outcome and a completely intolerable one.
This magazine has long advocated deploying U.S. power to halt the mass slaughter of innocents. Saddam Hussein distinguished himself at the mass slaughter of innocents: About this, there can be no dispute. Yet, in this case, we supported an invasion that has led to the same savage result. Without an occupying power--and, perhaps, with one--Iraq could soon witness refugee crises, the sectarian melee spilling into neighboring countries, Al Qaeda bases sprouting across the Sunni Triangle, and massacres still greater than those that have already transpired.
America's role in creating this Mesopotamian hell does not diminish our moral obligations. It increases them. Even an arch-realist like Colin Powell understood that when we broke it, we owned it. And, before we throw up our hands and enjoy the catharsis of walking away, we must exhaust every attempt to minimize further nightmares.
While the Republican defeat on November 7 may have politically foreclosed the possibility of sending more troops to Iraq, it was never clear where those troops would come from anyway. And, though it closed off one option, the election has also created new, if limited, possibilities. It sent an important message to Iraq's elite: The U.S. presence in Iraq will not last long. Perhaps this new political reality will serve as shock therapy, scaring Iraq's warring factions into negotiations that can prevent the worst sectarian warfare. But perhaps not.
More importantly, the elections may terrify the Bush administration into a new course. While the administration's defenders claim that it has exhausted diplomatic possibilities, this is true only in the sense that it has conducted grudging and occasional conversations with important regional players. But diplomacy is not just a cozy exercise in endless speech acts. It, too, must be brutal: It must include threats and promises, alliances and coalitions--with the threat of being left out. A new campaign should lay the groundwork for agreements prior to the calling of a peace conference that would include Iraq's parties and its neighbors, as well as the United States, the European Union, and Russia. What kind of agreement could be worked out? Separate states, a loose federation, a unified government? That's not clear--and won't be until the parties involved make their wishes known and negotiations begin. After all, Iraq was artificially created by the British after World War I. Its citizens may not be able to come together except through the imposition of a dictatorship. It may be that a federation is more appropriate, as it has been in the Balkans.
Many Democrats have embraced a proposal called "phased redeployment," a politically expedient way of saying immediate withdrawal. Their proposal, which calls for departures beginning in four to six months, doesn't allow the time and space for the arduous work that a political settlement requires--the kind of agreement that will ultimately allow us to leave with the least damage to the Iraqi people and our own interests. Proponents of "redeployment" might argue that the president will enact any new course as ineptly as he did before--a very reasonable fear. But, having achieved new majorities, the Democrats must use their oversight capability to ensure that this does not happen. This can no longer be a one-party war.
At this point, it seems almost beside the point to say this: The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war. The past three years have complicated our idealism and reminded us of the limits of American power and our own wisdom. But, as we pore over the lessons of this misadventure, we do not conclude that our past misjudgments warrant a rush into the cold arms of "realism." Realism, yes; but not "realism." American power may not be capable of transforming ancient cultures or deep hatreds, but that fact does not absolve us of the duty to conduct a foreign policy that takes its moral obligations seriously. As we attempt to undo the damage from a war that we never should have started, our moral obligations will not vanish, and neither will our strategic needs.
This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.