The goal in Iraq

After five years in Iraq and all the costs of the U.S. occupation, in lives and treasure, what now? That’s one of the questions we asked the panelists who participated in the roundtable discussion on Iraq featured in our cover story. The answers we bandied about are reflective of the country as a whole: confused, uncertain, differing. Indeed, about the only thing the panelists agreed on was that the invasion that began on March 19, 2003, was a colossal blunder compounded—then and later—by arrogance, deception, incompetence and greed.

Not since the Vietnam War have the people of this country been so pained by acts of their own government. And there seems no respite in sight. Reports of recent car bombings in Baghdad are vivid reminders that, while the president’s vaunted “surge” has held the lid on the pressure cooker for several months, it can come off at any time.

The fundamental problems that plague the country—sectarian schisms, a dysfunctional government and al-Qaeda terrorism—remain. As one of our panelists noted, it’s only because Moqtada al-Sadr has kept his militia under wraps for several months that a fragile semblance of peace has returned to the country.

Meanwhile, here at home, the president still insists on giving CIA interrogators the right to go beyond the restrictions of the Army Field Manual and use torture to extract information from detainees; Guantánamo is still holding hundreds of men without charging them with a crime; and the president wants to give telecom companies amnesty for wiretapping phones without court approval. Americans are right to worry that, in our effort to be safe, we are abandoning our core values as a nation and losing the respect of others.

Clearly, there is no easy way to end the occupation. But whatever the United States does, it should begin by acknowledging that occupying a sovereign nation is fundamentally wrong, regardless of questions of necessity. Every effort should be made to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. What that means, exactly, will depend on who is elected president in November and how he or she works with military commanders and the Iraqi government. But that, and nothing less, should be the goal.