It's time to make a virtue of necessity in Iraq. The country is sliding into full-blown civil war. The government is weak and getting weaker by the day; it also shows little willingness to make the minimum commitments necessary for stability--amending the constitution to guarantee Sunnis their share of national oil revenue, allowing lower-level Baathist officials to be rehabilitated, and disarming the militias.
The Bush administration and many Democrats have been strenuously resisting these conclusions. But they may, in fact, be our most valuable diplomatic asset. If we accept this reality and plan accordingly, suddenly the tables turn. If we pull out, Iran has a civil war on its borders, as do Syria and Saudi Arabia.All have good reasons to fear this scenario. Suddenly, instead of the United States being tied down in Iraq and thus unable to play a broader role in the region, Iran would find itself tied down in Iraq and thus unable to play a broader role in the region, while the United States could go back to being a regional power broker. Syria would likely see an increased flow of refugees as chaos in Iraq worsened. Saudi Arabia would need to contend with the threat posed by Iranian influence among Iraqi Shia. And all three would have to worry about the possibility of Al Qaeda gaining a permanent foothold in Iraq.
As for the warring parties within Iraq, they, too, have plenty of reason to fear a U.S. withdrawal. If we leave, the Shia will have to engage in all-out civil war without the protection of 150,000 U.S. troops. That is a decidedly worse situation than waging a covert civil war under the protection of U.S. forces--which is what the Shia are doing now. The Sunni insurgents will lose the propaganda value of attacking a foreign occupier and will have to recognize that, with U.S. troops gone, Iran would be free to use its oil riches to back the Shia to the hilt. As a result, Sunni forces would face the equivalent of Hezbollah on steroids. And the Kurds, much as they would like formal partition granting them statehood in everything but name, will understand that, without U.S. troops, places like Kirkuk will become bloody battlefields. Equally important, Turkey will no longer be deterred from sending in troops to chase alleged Kurdish terrorists.
In other words, the terrible conditions in Iraq--and the likelihood these conditions would worsen if we left--ultimately could be what allows us to save the country. The United States should announce that we are pulling out unless all parties within and outside Iraq come to the table and hammer out an enforceable peace settlement. Our commitment to withdrawing is newly credible, thanks to the recent midterm elections and the installation of a new secretary of defense. Whatever positive recommendations come out of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, the administration should make clear that phased withdrawal is the alternative--and be prepared to follow through.
Against this backdrop, we and the European Union--and possibly the Russians, although Russia has a strong incentive to keep the entire Middle East on a low boil in order to maintain high oil prices--should organize an Iraqi peace conference, inviting representatives of the Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni communities within Iraq, as well as Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some of the Gulf states. Plenty of diplomatic ground will have to be plowed first, but we should be able to convene a conference by January. The most important task for the United States is to make unequivocally clear that this is the last chance for all parties to negotiate while U.S. troops are still in Iraq.
An agreement that will stick, however, requires more than undesirable alternatives. We need real carrots, big enough to convince armed camps to disarm and to cooperate in the long, slow slog of rebuilding Iraq. The first could be a Saudi-financed public-works and jobs program for Iraqi civilians. The militia bosses who are offering protection today could be handing out jobs and construction contracts instead. Second would be an amended constitution that guarantees more regional autonomy for different areas within Iraq, combined with a strong enough central government to secure and disburse oil revenue. Third is a regional security forum that would be sponsored by the United States and the European Union to provide a structured and ongoing opportunity for all participants, including Iran and Syria, to negotiate mutual security assurances. Fourth is an EU offer to Iran to help develop its gas fields as an alternative to Russian energy supplies. And fifth would be an offer of more U.S. troops to secure and reconstruct Baghdad--for a defined time period and only if the peace agreement holds.
At the same time, the United States should engage other actors within Iraq who have been largely ignored, such as leaders of tribes with many mixed Sunni-Shia marriages and professional associations of doctors and lawyers that could unite Iraqis based on common careers rather than creeds. As American political scientists have long known, a large part of the stability of any representative government depends on cross-cutting cleavages, hampering the formation of extremist blocs. If we can somehow stop the violence, Iraq still, even now, has the building blocks of a diverse, law-abiding, prosperous society.
And if it doesn't work? If Iraq's various communities and neighbors refuse to cooperate with such a conference? Then we must follow through on our threat to withdraw--more or less. A humanitarian option just short of immediate withdrawal would be to allow as many Iraqi civilians as possible to move to safety behind U.S. troops--neighborhood by neighborhood in Baghdad and province by province in other parts of the country. This would require some U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, at least until the Iraqi army is strong enough to protect these areas. We might also leave enough troops on the borders of Kurdistan and any other area we can realistically protect to create safe routes for fleeing civilians.
This is a strategically unattractive and morally wrenching scenario. But it need not come to pass. Instead of insisting that U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are making progress, we might try acknowledging just how bad things are. Iraqis and their neighbors would then take seriously our threat to leave. Perhaps by recognizing reality in Iraq, we will manage to avoid making things worse--and with luck, humility, and hard work, we might just manage to make them better.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the Princeton Project on National Security.
This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.