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The Third Way in Iraq

The explosive wave of violence that tore through Iraq with such sudden fury this week has brought America, the Middle East and the democratic world to the edge of a dangerous precipice. The Bush administration policies that led to the current state of affairs were flawed from the outset, and continuing along the same path will only make things worse. We are not winning this war, and there is no sign that we will begin to do so anytime soon.

But the alternative bandied about by the administration’s most outspoken opponents — “bring the boys home” and let the devil take Iraq — is an invitation to disaster. The devil will indeed take Iraq. If the world seems scary now, just wait until Saddam Hussein marches back into Baghdad.

Put simply, we can’t go forward, and we can’t go back. We’re stuck.

There is a third way, however. It’s not an easy one, but it’s the only one that makes sense anymore. Our government could begin a serious effort to win international legitimacy and backing for our presence in Iraq. It was probably the only path that ever made sense, but our government chose not to go that route. It’s not too late to change course.

We could turn the reconstruction of Iraq into a genuine international partnership — involving the United Nations, major European nations and moderate Muslim states. That would go a long way toward relieving the mounting financial and military burdens of the war, which currently threaten to undercut both America’s ability and its will to finish the job. It would also reframe the worldwide war of words by making it clear — to the people of Iraq and throughout the Muslim world — that this is not a holy war of the Christian West against Islam but a global campaign against terrorism and extremism. It would reduce the radicals of Al Qaeda and their ilk to their proper proportions and show ordinary Muslims that there is another way besides hatred and jihad.

Nothing scares the radicals more. It’s no accident that the bloodiest and most spectacular attacks in Iraq during the last two months have been directed, for the most part, not against America but against those allies and partners whose presence in Iraq might add to America’s legitimacy in the eyes of world opinion. Consider the targets: the August 7 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad; the August 19 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad; the October 29 car bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Najaf, which killed a an important Shi’ite moderate leader, and the October 27 car bombings of the International Red Cross headquarters and three Iraqi police stations.

Reports from American and British intelligence suggest that unlike the hit-and-run attacks against American troops, which are assumed to be the work of Saddam loyalists, the mega-attacks carry the markings of Al Qaeda. Its strategy appears to be to scare away any potential allies and leave America isolated and bogged down. In the end, they hope, America will slink back home and leave Saddam — and Osama bin Laden — to claim victory.

The grimness of that scenario frightens the world community no less than our own policy-makers. That’s why the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on October 17 for a resolution calling on member-states to assist the American effort with money and troops. Nobody but the radicals wants America to fail. But the support is conditional, as several key powers made clear right after the vote.

To win the backing of its allies, America must agree to a partnership of the sort it has heretofore been unwilling to accept. The unilateralist mood that has dominated Washington policymaking during the last two years must give way to a new spirit of cooperation and compromise. We need to rein in our own homegrown radicals, who want to turn the battle against terrorism into a worldwide holy war for their version of democracy. They can’t be allowed to drive our policy anymore.

The truth is that we need friends like France and Egypt fighting with us, and we need to find the terms that will bring them on board. We can’t fight this war alone.

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