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Petraeus offers a dose of reality

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i>National Catholic Reporter has opposed military interventions into Iraq from the very first Gulf War in 1991, fearing from the start what has come to pass. Iraq is a country destroyed. That awareness does little, however, to alter the current mess. It is with great reluctance that we would argue against a precipitous withdrawal. With the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, it appears we now have before us a degree of reality that provides some space for us to begin talking about how to retreat from Iraq with the least possible further bloodshed and the best possible outcome for Iraq.

A revealing cautionary double-edged assessment was offered by Ahmad Umar el Esawi, a Sunni employed by the city Baquba in Iraq and quoted Sept. 12 in The New York Times. At first, he insisted that total and immediate withdrawal of all troops "is a must because they have caused the destruction of Iraq, they committed massacres against the innocents, they have double-crossed the Iraqis with dreams." Then he reluctantly added sotto voce: "The American forces, which are an ugly occupation force, have become something important to us, the Sunnis. ... If the Americans leave, it will mean a total elimination of the Sunnis in Iraq." His conclusion betrayed the ambivalence many Iraqis feel: "I know I said I want them to leave, but if we think about it, then I have to say I want them to stay for a while until we end all the suspicions we have of each other and have a strong national government."

It is against this background, with the added acknowledgment that this Sunni's echo of President Bush's desire for a strong national government is nothing but a pipe dream, that the Bush administration, the U.S. Congress and the American people must begin constructing a just end to a war that had an unjust beginning. We can deduce from Petraeus and Crocker, the most credible voices put forth by the Bush administration to date, that there are serious obstacles in the way of building a working democracy in Iraq; that waiting for it to happen at the cost of more American troops, already stretched to the breaking point, of innocent Iraqi lives, and a current price tag widely estimated at $8 billion a month, is unacceptable because it is unrealistic.

Like it or not, in the face of weak internal leadership, Iraq is moving toward what it was before it became an independent kingdom in 1932: discrete tribal and religious entities, with a new brand of violent extremists added to the mix. Finding a way to a measure of stability - even if some would call that a euphemism for defeat - is now the only way out. Petraeus and Crocker, by tempering their gloss in some areas with restraint in their assessments of the possibilities for military and political success, have set the stage for that conversation to go forward.

If a politically motivated Democratic call for immediate withdrawal were heeded, it would bring an end to our military presence in Iraq as misguided as its beginning. As for that small minority of Americans still entertaining delusions that the United States will miraculously emerge heroic from this nightmare, we can only hope that they will find in less grandiose visions a firmer ground for moving forward. Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman write in the book Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World that stability in the Middle East will be the product of both diminishing U.S. dominance in the region, a factor that fuels animosity and terrorism, as well as the ability to form a regional agreement by which Iraq's neighbors will honor its borders and its central government - one that makes room for ethnic power-sharing. Europe and United Nations will have to play a role in supporting and enforcing a regional agreement. Isolated players like Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia will have to participate, based on a plan that will prevent any one of those countries from operating solely in its own interest. An agreement over sharing oil revenues will be critical to any success.

While even this toned-down version of what is possible may be overly optimistic, it should be clear by now to all that staying the course is the worst of all options, since it has proven a failure at every point.

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