The general sentiment of pessimism is correct. The Iraq War should have never been authorized and the time for withdrawal is now. But others in the political mainstream — yet statistically on the political fringe — employ several arguments for staying the course. They argue that Al Qaeda in Iraq will regroup, gain strength, and attack us here, even though Al Qaeda in Iraq comprises only 2 to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency, a paltry figure for a group allegedly poised to dominate a country of 27 million people. Supporters of the war claim that it’s merely been a problem of execution, and that withdrawal would make America look weak. But this assertion could easily be stood on its head: Iraq is now the cause célèbre for jihadists flooding into Iraq because we are there, thus the longer we stay the weaker we become. Leaving would weaken the jihadists and actually improve our standing in the region. But arguments for staying the course usually come from the very people who got us into Iraq; so these shouldn’t be the go‐to‐experts for developing solutions to get us out.
But how do we withdraw responsibly, minimizing the chaos left in our wake? How do we turn our moral obligation to aid Iraqis into an achievable mission for withdrawal? There are numerous components to withdrawing from Iraq. A central one is a component that has been least addressed: engaging Iran. Implementing such a policy will be tricky, not only because Iran’s clerical leadership is difficult to deal with, but because engaging Iran will require America’s foreign policy establishment to significantly shift its ideological orientation, moving from the belief that diplomacy is weak to the thinking that diplomacy is one of the most potent instruments in our foreign policy toolbox.
Untangling the diplomatic, economic, and ideological roadblocks established over the last three decades will not be easy. But the stability we seek in Iraq is impossible unless we make a concerted effort to induce the actors surrounding Iraq to be responsible stakeholders. That result can come about only if we engage Iran openly, maturely, and without preconditions.
Since 1979, when a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the United States has attempted to isolate Iran throughout the Middle East. Occasionally, the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently, when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But overall, relations with Iran have been frosty, and until a U.S. administration alters that situation, diplomatic avenues will remain closed, and stability in Iraq will remain elusive.