PRESIDENT BUSH HAS so far fended off Cindy Sheehan, a grieving mother demanding to know the "noble purpose" of her son's death in Iraq. However, Bush has been forced to address the existence of the antiwar constituency for perhaps the first time, if only to distort and discredit its message of "troops out now." It is the right moment for the peace movement to turn its slogan into a strategy.
The rallying cry of "out now" expresses the belief that the Iraq war is not worth another minute in lost lives, lost honor, lost taxes, lost allies. But its very simplicity makes the demand easy to ignore or dismiss.
Meanwhile, the administration focuses on the appearance of progress in Iraq (thus its desperate interest in an Iraqi constitution, any constitution). It may well order a token withdrawal of troops to pacify peace sentiment through the 2006 congressional elections. Then, as with Vietnam in 1969, the war is likely to continue.
Those who have been proved right in opposing this war deserve a hearing alongside the military and national security "experts" who have dominated commentary since the March 2003 invasion. It is time to explain "out now" and for peace advocates to propose exit strategies of their own. Otherwise, both political parties will be stuck with the mind-set that an exit is possible only after "stability," meaning a military victory years from now (if ever).
Peace movement advocates have lobbied successfully for members of Congress to hold Capitol Hill forums in mid-September to explore exit strategies. Here is a starting point that is being discussed in peace circles. It is based on deciding now to get out of Iraq and outlining how to do it. The basis of the plan is a shift from a military model to a conflict-resolution model, then to a peace process that ends in a negotiated political settlement alongside a U.S. withdrawal. The main themes are these:
First, as confidence-building measures, Washington should declare that it has no interest in permanent military bases or the control of Iraqi oil. It must immediately announce goals for ending the occupation and bringing all our troops home -- in months, not years, beginning with an initial gesture by the end of this year.
Second, the U.S. should request that the United Nations, or a body blessed by the U.N., monitor the process of military disengagement and de-escalation, and take the lead in organizing a peaceful reconstruction effort.
Third, the president should appoint a peace envoy, independent of the occupation authorities, to begin an entirely different mission in Iraq. The envoy should encourage and cooperate in peace talks with Iraqi groups opposed to the occupation, including insurgents, to explore a political settlement.
Already 82 members of the Iraqi National Assembly have signed a public letter calling for "the departure of the occupation." A former minister in the Iraqi interim government, Aiham Alsammarae, is talking with 11 insurgent groups about a transition to politics. Even the militant Shiites led by Muqtada Sadr have shown interest in the political process by collecting a million signatures for American withdrawal. Surveys earlier this year showed that 69% of Iraqi Shiites and more than 75% of Sunnis favored a near-term U.S. withdrawal.
Neither the Bush administration nor the news media have shown interest in these voices, perhaps because they undercut the argument that we are fighting to save Iraqis from each other. By most accounts, the U.S. military presence has attracted and enlarged the hard-core jihadist forces. The course we are on also contributes to incipient civil war because of subsidies and training for Shiite and Kurdish forces against the estranged Sunnis. It was not enough to invite a handful of Sunnis into the constitutional talks.
Any settlement proposal must guarantee a troop withdrawal and new efforts at reconstruction. A successful peace process will guarantee representation for the Iraqi opposition in a final governing arrangement. It will encourage power-sharing arrangements in economic and energy development as well as governance. The handing over of the Iraqi economy to private and mostly U.S. interests will by definition end with the occupation.
These are plausible steps toward conflict resolution. Perhaps Cindy Sheehan's moral stance will awaken courage among politicians who openly or privately deplore the fabricated origins of the war but cannot bring themselves to be honest about the war itself.