Special Report

A Job Half Done

With great efficiency and military skill, the United States won an unjust war in Iraq. Then, with poor planning and inept management, the administration put at risk a just peace. Given this shoddy scorecard, should the United States simply withdraw from a place it never should have invaded?

Just war theorists are used to inquiring into the justice of a war's cause (jus ad bellum) and its conduct (jus in bello). Now we must probe the jus post bellum: What obligations does the occupier have and when are they discharged?

St. Augustine, one of the founding figures of the just war tradition, helped us understand that peace is not simply the absence of conflict. This understanding suggests that America's work is only half done -- if that. The invasion has created a moral obligation for the victors to maintain a measure of social order, while reestablishing the government and institutions of the defeated nation. The moral imperative during the occupation is Iraqi well-being, not American interests.

Accordingly, the United States and its allies must not depart until basic social institutions are in place or until it is clear that occupying forces are either unwanted or unable to contribute to the creation of those institutions. For those Americans eager for their country to get out of Iraq, it is tempting to argue that the U.S. presence is the cause of the insurgency and that withdrawal is already ethically proper. But that is only half correct: The insurgents will oppose any non-Sunni-dominated government, and the present Iraqi security forces are still unable to maintain order.

The United States should do all it can to see that a political regime, with the approval of a majority of Iraqis, assumes sovereign authority promptly. The January elections gave the next government a healthy chance at legitimacy, but the United States must still ensure the stability of the new government. When an independent and representative government of Iraq assumes power and tells the United States to leave, it should withdraw speedily. If it asks foreign forces to continue their presence or provide other forms of assistance, the United States must be open to the request. An unjust war must not become an excuse for leaving behind an unjust peace.

Special Report

Get Out Now

The new Iraqi authorities must be able to challenge the insurgency on nationalist, political, and religious grounds. But Iraqi leaders will not have the cultural and political space to do so unless the United States takes several difficult steps.

First, the United States must announce and execute a phased withdrawal of troops to be completed by February 2006. For this action to be credible, the United States must also scale down its embassy, making it equivalent in size to others in the region. Next, the United States must dismantle the military bases now under construction to remove the image of an Iraqi government dependent on U.S. force.

There are two principal objections to this strategy. The tactical objection is that an announced deadline provides insurgents with a substantial advantage in their own planning. In the political realm, critics assert that these steps constitute a "cut and run" strategy that will be interpreted by both our allies and enemies as a sign of weakness.

The first claim is not credible. U.S. leaders have been consistently incorrect about the scope, motivations, and strategies of the insurgency. During the past two years, the administration has announced that attacks would ebb after the capture of Saddam Hussein, after the handover of authority by the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iyad Allawi interim government, after the reconquest of Fallujah, and after the January election. Instead, the insurgency has intensified and solidified. It is now apparent that the pervasive U.S. presence motivates quite disparate dissenters to spread anarchy. Announced deadlines will provide Iraqi authorities the best bargaining leverage they can have in this environment.

The fear that aggressive withdrawal will signal U.S. weakness misses the point. Iraq's desire to be rid of the occupiers is clear. A January 2005 Zogby opinion poll found that 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites favor U.S. withdrawal "either immediately or after an elected government is in place." Withdrawing in the face of such strong national consensus is not a policy of weakness but one of appropriate deference to the wishes of the Iraqi people. And through its subsequent actions, the United States ultimately will be able to determine how that withdrawal is judged. A continued commitment to economic aid and to the political choices Iraqis make for themselves will provide ample positive data for history. A U.S. withdrawal would be a victory of good sense over exaggerated fears.