Barry Posen is correct in his assessment of the reality on the ground in Iraq—it is a military standoff between the United States and the insurgency that saps our human, economic, and political resources—and in his conclusion that military disengagement within 18 months, if well planned, is in the national interest of the United States and, ultimately, in the interest of Iraq. It is the intent if not yet the publicly stated policy of the Bush administration to disengage with honor. The president’s Annapolis speech of November 30 was the setup for declaring victory and going home. We will stay the course all the way to the exit ramp.

The debate is thus not about whether we leave but how. Posen argues well for a definite withdrawal date and exposes the canards raised by those opposed to a clear exit strategy. What is less clear is what kind of Iraq Posen proposes we leave behind and whether it will be viable. Unless it is, any disengagement will be temporary, or our presence will have been futile. Posen proposes that we orchestrate a stalemate among the three major elements within Iraq—the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds—but his argument is weakened by internal inconstancies and the difficulty of implementation, and the stalemate he proposes would be uneasy and unstable. A “very loose federal system” in which the three major groups govern themselves but the central government is left to defend Iraq diplomatically and loosely referee equitable distribution of oil wealth will not work. First, as Posen states, the three major groups—and the more than 20 other distinct ethnic and religious groups in Iraq—are highly mixed, by geography and by family. The second largest Kurdish city is Baghdad, and a significant proportion of Basra is Sunni. The Kurds want the Arabs out of Kirkuk; the Turkmen think the city is theirs. Many families and tribes have high rates of intermarriage. Where would the lines be drawn within which groups would govern themselves? The concept of family courts that trump civil law is regressive, unrealistic, and a threat not only to minorities but to women.

A central government that does not have authority over security forces is a prescription for the institutionalization of sectarian and ethnic militias. The central government is also to defend Iraq diplomatically, yet I foresee, and the current Iraqi constitution seems to require, embassies with their own paralyzing ethnic balancing.

The current constitution contains another deeply flawed element that should be on the docket for amendment after the December 15 parliamentary elections: the oil-distribution provisions. As it stands, the lack of distinction between current, new, and expanded fields; the lack of criteria for affirmative distribution based on past inequities; and the failure to address the strategic value of pipelines (and other vital communication and transportation links) that run through Sunni-dominated regions, among other problems, could make refereeing an equitable distribution of oil wealth virtually impossible, especially for a hollowed-out central government.

What sort of Iraq would emerge from the ashes of the Saddam regime was not a major topic of debate prior to the invasion. The goal was regime change, not nation-building. We assumed that there would be an intact civil bureaucracy absent the Baath party apparatus and a redeemable army minus the Revolutionary Guard and other instruments of Saddam’s control. We had an unabashed belief that “imposed democracy” is acceptable and sustainable, not a fundamental oxymoron. The successor government needed only to be stable, unitary, and friendly—specifically, a willing partner in our policy of imposing a series of “democracies” in the region.

The notion, however ephemerally a part of our policy, that Iraq would become a fully formed, mature Western-style democracy in a matter of a few years, and after a constitutional debate of only a few months, was a cruel hoax, more on the American people than the Iraqis, who knew better. But the alternative need not be resignation to an utterly dysfunctional political stalemate that is a discredit to the Iraqis. Each step in Iraq’s political evolution has reflected more American than Iraqi domestic dynamics, from the invasion to President Bush’s recent speeches regarding withdrawal. The interim steps—the transfer of sovereignty, the elections, the constitutional timelines, and the October referendum—have been artificial at best. At each of these non-tipping points it was debatable whether the Iraqi political leadership, mechanisms, or people were really ready. If we and the Iraqis had waited for ill-defined political “maturity” or secure conditions, it is questionable whether any political steps would have been taken. Whether the government is democratic is not the issue and should not be the standard to which it is held. But to expect a government that is credible, national, and legitimate is reasonable, and its existence is a critical predicate to troop withdrawal.

Here Posen brings up a critical argument not heard nearly enough: that the U.S. occupation has an enabling effect on conditions in Iraq. The role of the occupation in fueling the insurgency and recruiting foreign fighters is clear, if not yet sufficiently accepted. Likewise, the function of the occupation in perpetuating political paralysis deserves more attention. None of the three major groups can defeat the other militarily, but each has the capacity to wreak havoc. Economically, none can realistically survive long without the others, if only because of pipelines and the perceptions of foreign investors. Politically, majoritarianism is as untenable as Baathism. But our occupation blunts the necessity for Iraqis to make the political choices necessary to survive. The Kurds are cocky from 15 years of U.S. patronage. The Shia are arrogant because of unrealistic promises of compensatory power, wealth, and influence. And the Sunnis have read U.S. policy, correctly, as marginalization of minority groups. There is no incentive to compromise in these calculations. But a stalemate doesn’t resolve anything. What is needed is a pragmatic compromise.

The Iraqis pulled themselves back from a precipice in October with the grand bargain to open the constitution to immediate amendment in exchange for full Sunni participation in the political process. An explicit commitment by the United States to disengage militarily by a specific date could have a salutary effect on all the major players within Iraq. It is not just a hanging that can concentrate the mind.