An Exit Strategy Bush Can’t Ignore

Agitated over their declining credibility, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are answering accusations that they misled the nation into war with characteristic aggressiveness. They’re understandably alarmed by the increasing consensus among Americans that they exaggerated and distorted intelligence to justify invading Iraq.

What alarms everyone else—including many members of the President’s own party—is that that they still can articulate no plausible plan to get our troops out. Rather than distracting themselves with partisan bickering, the President and Vice President ought to seize any opportunity to extricate us honorably from the terrible mess they have made.

Now such a chance has appeared, if only the White House has the wit to recognize it.

The quandary for Americans in Iraq, now that the old rosy scenarios have been discarded, is that both leaving and staying are likely to result in disaster.

If we withdraw, the entire country will be engulfed by civil war, creating a haven for Islamist terror and a threat to regional stability, not to mention a victory for our enemies. If we remain as occupiers, the civil war will continue to expand anyway, attracting support for Islamist terror, draining our resources, and further damaging our army and international prestige. We continue the occupation because of the insurgency, even though the occupation only strengthens the insurgency.

Too often omitted from American discussions of this dismal situation is the widely shared and forcefully expressed desire of the Iraqis themselves—namely that our troops should go home as soon as possible, and that a schedule must be established for their departure.

Last August, the British defense ministry conducted a secret opinion survey in Iraq, whose results have since leaked out. The pollsters found that over three-quarters of the Iraqi public want a timetable for the end of the occupation. Even the Iraqi political parties least hostile to the United States, including those that won the elections last January, want to know precisely when our troops will go.

That broad judgment was ratified again in Cairo last weekend, when Iraqi political leaders met at a “reconciliation conference” under the auspices of the Arab League. Only those who know nothing about public opinion in Iraq were surprised when the Cairo conferees, representing a very broad spectrum of ethnic and religious factions, issued a joint statement that demanded “the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable.” (The communiqué went so far as to acknowledge the legitimacy of “resistance” to foreign occupation, while condemning acts of terror against civilians.)

According to the Egyptian newspaper Al Hayat, sources at the conference suggested that the Iraqi leaders want U.S. and British troops to vacate the country’s major cities by next May. The premise of that hope is “an immediate national program to rebuild the armed forces.”

Opponents of withdrawal argue convincingly that Iraq will not possess the military and police capacity to defend itself from the insurgents within six months. That argument is bolstered by the Bush administration’s history of false predictions and pronouncements about the rapid improvement of the Iraqi armed forces.

How then can our troops get out without plunging Iraq and perhaps the Middle East into bloody chaos?

The best alternative is a negotiated ceasefire leading to an American withdrawal. Working through the Iraqi government, U.S. officials should set forth a clear timetable for the departure of our troops—in exchange for an end to armed attacks by Sunni guerrillas. Spokesmen for the rebels, including leaders of the Association of Muslim Scholars, have often hinted at the possibilities for such a settlement.

Not all of the insurgents would be willing to participate in negotiations with the Iraqi government or the United States, of course. The force that calls itself “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, aims to install an Islamist regime and in any case prefers a prolonged conflict for propaganda purposes. No doubt the Zarqawi group, which is a tiny minority among the insurgents, realizes that any settlement would doom them.

That is another obvious reason for Americans to sit down and talk with the mainstream Sunni and former Baathist rebels. A looming defeat in the “war on terror” could be transformed into a victory over Al Qaeda won by Arabs and Muslims.

At the Cairo conference last Sunday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said his government would be willing to engage in talks with representatives of the insurgents. Indeed, he sounded eager. The veteran Kurdish leader told reporters, “If those who call themselves the Iraqi resistance want to contact me, I will welcome them.”

Sincere as Mr. Talabani’s invitation may be, however, the insurgents are unlikely to accept it without guarantees that he alone cannot provide. Only the President of the United States can propose the initiation of talks about an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and a ceasefire between the insurgency and the Iraqi government—and that is what he should do now. An Exit Strategy Bush Can’t Ignore