Iraq: What Next?

I am not sure that there is anything that we can do with our army in Iraq that won't make things worse than they are. That may be an un-American sentiment. (Isn't there always something to do, and aren't we always the ones who can do it?) But what are our options? Should we "stay the course"? That only means more of the same awfulness. Bring in more troops? That might have worked a few years ago; now, it would only generate more resistance and make the awfulness more awful. In any case, it is politically impossible here at home. Withdraw immediately? That would most likely bring on a full-scale civil war (no, what is going on now isn't yet a full-scale civil war). Withdraw slowly and leave behind a partitioned country? At this point, there seems no way of establishing the borders of the three parts or of dividing the oil revenue short of the same civil war. 

So we can't win the fight and we can't just stop fighting. And that means that we are up against it: We have to talk. This has not been a talking administration. Well, there are a lot of ideological pronouncements, some of them actual arguments, some of them boosterism and ballyhoo, some of them a kind of self-reinforcement. But real talk with other people who have different ideas--that hasn't been common in the last six years. And, now, it is necessary. 

There have to be four sets of talks. First, talks among all the sects and factions in Iraq itself--with the United States watching and listening but not, at least not at first, participating. If the Iraqis reach some kind of rough agreement, then we should join the discussions. It might be useful to set a deadline and threaten to withdraw our troops, but I think that the Iraqis know by now that the duration of our stay in their country is limited. They know that most Americans want to get out, and the proof of the ardency of our wish is that pretty much any of the possible compromises that they might come up with would be acceptable to us (though we can't allow a coalition of Shia and Sunni Arabs to take shape against the Kurds). 

Second, talks between the United States and all the neighboring states that have an interest in the eventual outcome of the war: Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. A conference of these states might be useful, but it probably can't be convened without bilateral talks between each of them and the United States. We have interests in common with these states--even with the Iranians, as our brief Afghan cooperation indicates. The current refusal to talk, without conditions, to the leaders of Syria and Iran is a terrible mistake. There are a lot of things we shouldn't do, especially at the behest of Syria and Iran, without insisting that crucially important conditions be met--but talking isn't one of them. 

Third, talks between the United States and its European allies about how to support any emerging settlement of the war--and also about how to limit and contain the dangers that are now pretty certain to come with the settlement. We need Europe as a partner, but that must mean a real partner, ready to share responsibility for how things go in places like the Gulf. 

Fourth, and finally, talks between the Bush administration and all other factions in American politics. Maybe the Baker-Hamilton Commission represents the beginning of a discussion of this sort, but the list of participants needs to be extended to include the current leaders of the Democratic Party and the growing number of discontented Republicans. The outcome in Iraq is not going to come close to what the ideological optimists in the administration hoped for; nor will it come close to what the imperial tough guys wanted. It is not going to be pretty from any perspective. Ultimate responsibility for this falls--and should be made to fall--on President Bush and his advisers. On the other hand, the Democrats, now that they have taken control of Congress, will want to do everything they can to avoid stab-in-the-back recriminations and divisive debates about who "lost" Iraq. It is probably best for everyone concerned that the endgame be a bipartisan production. That will take a lot of talking, since there hasn't been a more partisan administration than this one in my lifetime, and American politics has not been so noisy and discordant for a long time. But, if the Bush people discover that they can talk to the Iranians, they might find that they can also talk to the Democrats. 

Talk, talk, talk--the repetition of that word commonly carries a pejorative meaning. But, right now, it represents the most sensible policy prescription.  

Michael Walzer is a contributing editor at The New Republic, professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and the co-editor of Dissent.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.