TRB From Washington

I can't even imagine Iraq anymore. It exceeds my capacity to visualize horror. In a recent interview with The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid, a woman named Fatima put it this way: "One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing, and one-third of us will be widows." At the Baghdad morgue, they distinguish Shia from Sunnis because the former are beheaded and the latter are killed with power drills. Moqtada Al Sadr has actually grown afraid of his own men. I came of age believing the United States had a mission to stop such evil. And now, not only isn't the United States stopping it--in some important sense, we are its cause.

In a particularly cruel twist, the events of recent months have demolished the best arguments both for staying and for leaving. Once upon a time, you could have plausibly argued that, by staying, the United States might make things better: We could have improved security on the ground and thus enhanced the Iraqi government's authority while weakening the insurgents and the militias. That would have allowed Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders to make the tough political compromises that might have pulled Iraq back from the brink. But, since February's attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the violence has grown so shocking--and the sectarian hatred so intense--that asking either the Sunnis or Shia to disarm (no one is even asking the Kurds) is inviting them to commit mass suicide. The Bush administration keeps telling Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki to take on the Shia militias, as if the guy just lacks motivation. But the militias are not a threat to the Iraqi state; they are the Iraqi state. By their grace, Maliki stays in office and remains alive.

Once upon a time, you also could have argued that, if the United States left, Iraqis would have little reason to continue the slaughter. "What the resistance movement has been resisting is the occupation," wrote Nir Rosen last December in The Atlantic, making the case for withdrawal. "Who would the insurgents fight if the enemy left?" The question now answers itself. For most Iraqi Sunnis, the primary enemy is no longer the U.S. military; it's their Shia countrymen.Amazingly (given how much they hate our occupation), prominent Sunni leaders now actually want the United States to stay--because we're restraining the government in Baghdad from butchering them wholesale.

Today, the honest arguments for staying or leaving are simply that we can't do the opposite. We can't leave because the prospects of a regional civil war (and, perhaps, a jihadist safe haven) are so horrifying. And we can't stay because our presence can't prevent those things--so why send young Americans to die trying to stop the inevitable?

At this late date, the United States has only one card left to play in Iraq: the threat to leave immediately. Except for Sadr, virtually no one in Iraq's political class wants that to happen. We must wield that threat as dramatically as possible, and, if Iraq's leaders don't respond, leave as fast as we humanly can.

The vehicle for this last-ditch effort would be a conference of Iraq's leaders and Iraq's neighbors (along with Russia, which has more leverage over Iran and Syria than we do). The goal would be revising Iraq's constitution to guarantee Sunnis a generous share of the nation's oil wealth (which is practically Iraq's only source of wealth). This is precisely the guarantee that Shia leaders refused to offer after they won the January 2005 elections. And it is the only way to convince Sunnis to accept a new Shia- and Kurd-dominated Iraq. To give Shia leaders an incentive to agree, the United States should offer the biggest carrot possible: not just a continued U.S. troop presence, but a temporary troop increase and a dramatically larger, World Bank- overseen development effort. We should also offer the biggest possible stick: If the conference ends in failure, the United States should begin its full withdrawal that very day. (We'd leave some troops in the neighborhood for operations against Al Qaeda.)

Democrats often suggest a conference like this, but, in the next breath, they call for troop withdrawals in a few months. But telling the Iraqis we are withdrawing troops no matter what is not much better than telling them--as Bush essentially has--that we will keep them no matter what. It removes our only source of leverage.

If the Iraqis really strike a constitutional deal that the prominent leaders in all three major communities publicly support, the United States must try to make it stick. That would mean temporarily sending more troops to secure key Baghdad neighborhoods and then flooding those neighborhoods with public-works programs that put young Sunni and Shia men to work. The goal would be to weaken the militias and insurgents from below by diminishing the public insecurity and hopelessness on which they thrive--and to help Iraqi leaders weaken them from above by genuinely integrating them into a functioning Iraqi state. Such an effort would take years and cost American lives. But, in support of a far-sighted constitutional bargain crafted by Iraqis willing to challenge their communities (and risk their lives) to keep their country together, it would be a sacrifice worth making.

Is such a bargain likely, even at the point of a diplomatic gun? Hardly. Civil wars don't generally stop until the participants decide that bloodshed has lost its political utility, and Iraq's power brokers still seem to overwhelmingly believe the opposite. But it's worth one last try, as long as we are willing to take no for an answer. The Iraqi people didn't ask us to invade their country; they certainly didn't ask us to do so in criminally inept fashion. We at least owe them this.And, if we fail, we should have the decency to give refuge to those Iraqis who make their way out of that living hell and to our shores.

"Were not those right who held that it was self-contradictory to try to further the permanent ideals of peace by recourse to war?" wrote John Dewey in The New Republic in 1919, confessing his despondency at the outcome of World War I. Yes, they were right then, and they are right now. War can be necessary, but, in the decade between the liberation of Kuwait and the liberation of Kabul, it became the repository for too many of our hopes for a better world. Now that we have seen the liberation and destruction of Baghdad, it won't be again for a long, long time.

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