Exit strategically

Everybody seems to be talking lately about an exit strategy, a plan by which the United States might withdraw its 150,000 troops and end its military occupation of Iraq. Pundits, analysts and bloggers—many of them conservative—are talking these days in exit-speak: It’s time to “shape an exit,” to “transition to withdrawal.”

The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, has promoted a decisive exit strategy. Even William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement, recently penned a column headlined “Day has come to exit Iraq,” wherein he wrote that if he’d known in 2002 what he knows now, he never would have supported the war in Iraq in the first place.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that sweeping societal changes often come about because a tipping point has been reached, where people’s ideas and behaviors spread like a virus and “tip,” forcing previously unexpected or difficult outcomes to suddenly become inevitable.

Have we reached a tipping point on Iraq? It suddenly seems so. We are well aware of the toll of this war: 1,600 dead Americans, 12,000 wounded ones and 100,000 estimated dead Iraqis. We see no end to the ongoing carnage in Iraq—the death threats, assassinations and suicide bombings.

It is true that many didn’t feel right calling for an outright exit until recently. We felt constrained by the truth that we Americans are the ones who put Iraq in the awful position it is in today. Yes, we ousted an awful despot—but at what cost? We devastated a country based on lies and obfuscation from our political leaders. The recent Downing Street memo (find more info at AfterDowningStreet.org) provides further evidence that Bush deceived and mislead Congress and the American people about the rationale for war.

Would a U.S. exit mean abandoning Iraq to potential chaos and anarchy? There’s no easy answer. We’ve created a situation in which our options are bad to worse. But the Iraqi people are not going to tolerate a long-term military presence in their country. It is time to create an international military force to maintain security in Iraq, put it under command of the United Nations and withdraw U.S. troops except as part of the U.N. effort. An Iraq constitution should be drafted by August 15 and voted on by Iraqis in December. The exit should be coordinated with these events.

The Bush administration, however, doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. During U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s last surprise visit to Baghdad, he told soldiers, “We don’t have an exit strategy; we have a victory strategy!” And Paul Wolfowitz, known as the “father” of the war in Iraq, told the House Committee on Armed Services a while back that the United States would have to stay in Iraq for at least 10 years.

Well, these are men who wouldn’t recognize a tipping point if it crashed down on top of their heads. They are the ones who will look back from history and say, “What happened? When did the tide turn?” If a tipping point is indeed at hand, if both conservatives and liberals are uniting around the need for an exit strategy in Iraq, then ultimately our so-called leaders will just have to take note and follow the people.