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Next step in helping Iraqis: Set a withdrawal date

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Washington's policy toward Iraq is dangerously adrift, showing no convincing signs of crushing or even containing the insurgency there. No insurgency can be beaten using military means only - and Washington has produced no plan for a political endgame capable of rallying the Iraqi citizenry around an anti-insurgent platform.

Some have argued that the US needs to "stay the course" in Iraq and increase the numbers of US troops there, if needed. But the US simply doesn't have enough troops to do this, or even to sustain present troop levels past the end of the summer. Anyway, for the US, Iraq is not primarily a military problem. It's a political problem - one that the Bush administration has shown itself incapable of resolving.

The interests of both Americans and Iraqis have been badly harmed by the three-year US occupation of Iraq (though far more Iraqis have suffered than Americans). If these two peoples are to be saved from further - even cataclysmic - harm, then Washington must quickly devise and implement a withdrawal strategy that's total, speedy, and generous to the Iraqi people.

Some Americans seem not to understand how deeply, in most postcolonial societies, including Iraq, the fears of foreign domination still linger. So long as President Bush refuses to set a date for withdrawal, these fears will continue to multiply. No Iraqi political forces, except some in the Kurdish north, can be expected to support a long-term US troop presence in their country. (Kurdish leaders who think this might be a good idea would do well to remember the lawless condition of Kosovo, six years after its partial "liberation" by Western armies.)

Here's how I'd answer the most common objections to such a proposal:

How can the US negotiate a withdrawal when the political forces inside Iraq are still so fragile and mutually contentious?

A negotiated withdrawal is generally better, but unilateral withdrawals, like Israel's 2000 exit from southern Lebanon, can work well, too. Despite Israeli fears of postwithdrawal mayhem and revenge (in Lebanon), none came to pass. Likewise, as Iraqis see the US starting to withdraw, political figures at all levels will undoubtedly be happy to make the arrangements needed for that process to continue. A prior US announcement of imminent total withdrawal will focus the minds of Iraqis considerably and show them they'll truly be masters of their own fate. They'll see the need to work together politically to figure out what follows. And they'll be far less hospitable to insurgents, especially those who get their impetus from the prospect of a prolonged foreign occupation.

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