The demons in the box

The U.S. occupation of Iraq, which began, we were told, as an effort to find and eliminate weapons of mass destruction and then became an exercise in building democracy, has now entered its third major phase. The goal now is to keep the Iraqis from killing each other and regional war from breaking out long enough for the U.S. to withdraw judiciously.

It’s a humble goal and one that acknowledges the occupation’s failure, but it has the distinct advantage of being based on reality, rather than on cynicism or wishful thinking.

That reality is that U.S. military forces are all that stands between the Iraqi people and a horrendous free-for-all of violence and bloodshed that could go on for years—and foster a regional war in the bargain. If you think we are hated now in the Muslim world, try to imagine the feelings when al-Jazeera broadcasts the slaughter that is likely to ensue if U.S. troops leave precipitously.

America can’t just walk away from Iraq. After all, we opened the Pandora’s box there, let out all the demons Saddam Hussein had kept locked up for decades, and did nothing to contain them—so we bear major responsibility for the suffering those demons have caused. Asking American men and women to sacrifice so the Iraqi people have at least an outside shot at peace and stability may not sound as grand as “building democracy,” but in fact it’s more important.

Already, those demons are causing tremendous suffering. We Americans focus on the number of our soldiers who have been killed in the war, now nearly 4,000, but the Iraqis are suffering far more: At least 70,000 are dead, by conservative estimates, more than 2 million have fled the country, and another 2 million are refugees within Iraq. Every month, 60,000 people flee their homes, fearful for their safety. Daily life is a series of miseries, chief among them fear.

Long term, though, the U.S. has no choice but to decrease troop levels. The Army and Marine Corps are stretched unsustainably thin. It’s clear from their testimony to Congress last week that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker understand this, but it was just as clear that they have little idea how the inevitable American drawdown and eventual exit will be accomplished.

The next important discussion must begin there: What should America’s Iraq policy be for the next five years? The next 10? What is our contingency plan? Will we leave Iraq with the same kind of disarray as we created when we entered it? What will happen to the Iraqis who have helped us?

Right now a power struggle is going on in Iraq, in which the central government is just one among several major players, including al-Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, various warlords and criminal gangs, and the Kurds. Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—are busily working from without to manipulate the power struggle within.

Given this context, what should America’s priorities be? How can we get the rest of the world involved in saving this country? Is there a future for a grand strategy in Iraq, or are small, localized initiatives, as in al-Anbar province, the best that can be hoped for? As we exit Iraq, what can we leave behind in the way of democratic institutions that the Iraqi people can use? What can we do to help Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere?

It’s time to think seriously and deeply about how we’re going to disengage from this disastrous situation of our own collective making. Democrats are eager to hang this war around the neck of President Bush. He, meanwhile, is just as eager to hand it over to his (probably Democratic) successor. But the reality, at this point, is that it belongs to all of us, because what happens in Iraq will affect our nation for many years to come.