After nearly three years devoid of serious discussion in Washington about Iraq, the floodgates opened when Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. — a conservative Democrat who originally supported the war — called for withdrawing U.S. troops at the earliest “practicable date.”

With more than 2,100 U.S. casualties, more than $250 billion spent and the few remaining members of the international coalition packing their bags, the central questions about if, when and how U.S. troops come home are at center stage.

Despite the real obligations Americans feel they owe the Iraqi people, the lessons of the last three years provide ample evidence that the United States isn’t even upholding the Hippocratic oath of “First do no harm.” Bringing the troops home surely will not cure all of Iraq’s ailments. But given that Bush’s goals are unreachable, the only option is to change course and bring the troops home now.

Putting aside the rhetoric on both sides of the debate (“out now” versus “stay the course”), the real issue behind bringing the troops home is what does victory look like, and can it be achieved?

Bush took up this question in a December speech broadly defining victory as defeating terrorists and building an inclusive democratic state. He declared before an audience of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy that he would not “accept anything less than complete victory.”

Not only is this a daunting goal, it demands a decades-long presence.

No wonder the president refuses to discuss a timeline. But few Americans are willing to pay the price for what these objectives would cost in dollars or lives.

While succeeding in giving a clear definition of his version of victory, Bush did a poor job of outlining how this “complete victory” could actually be achieved. Given the reality of what has occurred on the ground in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, there are few indications that his objectives can be met, no matter how long the troops stay there.

Limited progress is being made in training Iraqi soldiers and police. Yet, even as their numbers rise, the insurgency has not weakened. Bush failed to make the case for why Iraqi soldiers can do the job that the best soldiers in the world have not accomplished.

Iraqi soldiers lack a clear mission and, with unemployment estimated at more than 20 percent, many soldiers are simply fighting for a paycheck. The face of the Iraqi military the United States is creating, dominated heavily by the Kurds and the Shiites, bodes poorly for the future of Iraq with Sunnis feeling increasingly targeted.

Though the issue of democracy remains central in Bush’s reasoning for continuing the occupation, few concrete steps have been made to give Iraqis control of their own country. Iraqis have little say about day-to-day decisions and no oversight powers on U.S. military operations or reconstruction projects. U.S. advisers remain embedded in Iraqi government agencies, and more than 100 U.S.-mandated orders remain in place.

With the United States building the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, maintaining a heavy military presence throughout Iraq with more than 100 bases and controlling billions of dollars slated for the country’s reconstruction, there’s no indication that Iraqis are gaining sovereignty and democracy. Moreover, the Iraqi people have called for a U.S. withdrawal.

Instead of bringing greater capabilities to Iraqi forces and advancing democracy, the U.S. occupation makes these goals impossible to achieve, despite the fact that they represent the true spirit of the American people. The conclusion then is clear, as Murtha argues: The United States must get out.

A strategy for withdrawal that gives Iraqis a chance for a stable future must avoid a “cut-and-run” approach. How withdrawal is done will shape the U.S. legacy in Iraq and thus the military must adopt a plan that helps reduce the chances of civil war.

A successful plan would have three elements: a clear timetable with measurable benchmarks, U.S. involvement in peace negotiations with all elements of Iraqi society, building upon the Cairo summit held by the Arab League, and clear and firm commitments to provide financial assistance for reconstruction.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project. He is the co-author of "The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of War and the Case for Bringing Home the Troops." Available online at:

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