01/15/2007 11:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Exit and No Exit

By now every critic has had their say about Pres. Bush's escalation of the war. Comparisons to Vietnam, considered unmentionable a year ago, have become common after Sen. Kennedy raised them. Like Vietnam, Iraq is a quagmire. There's no reason to reach desperately for victory since defeat has already occurred.

This country is caught in an existential trap worthy of Sartre's "No Exit." The U.S. wants to help a people who refuse our help, preferring sectarian vengeance that could continue for decades as it does in Lebanon and Palestine. The United States overthrew a despot, only to reap the fruits of despotism. Saddam used terror and military force to keep a tight lid on religious feuding, and although a section of the Iraqi population was ready for freedom, a huge proportion was not. They have erupted with the anger of the oppressed and the dispossessed. Ultimately, Iraqis aren't fighting over religion but over their history. They have lived in a 'no exit' society in which violence makes sense because nothing else does.

All signs point to the necessity of finding an exit, for them and for us. The election of a Shi'ite government allied to Islamic clerics foreshadowed the future. Iraq, like Iran, wants to be an Islamic state. Some form of civil authority will be paralleled by a much stronger clerical government that stays out of sight but rules with an iron hand. Such an outcome makes no sense to Westerners. Why should the average Iranian struggle while mullahs become billionaires and a puppet civil government pretends to be in charge? But that is the current state of Iranian consciousness, and apparently of Iraqi consciousness as well.

If we accept this inevitability, there are steps we can take to ease the transition:

1. Apologize to the world at the U.N. and plead for help in keeping a fragile peace in Iraq, on the model of keeping the peace in Bosnia.

2. Federalize the country so that each sect has its own autonomous region with loose links to a central government.

3. Facilitate the movement of people to their new states, trying to avoid the same bloodbath that took hundreds of thousands of lives when Pakistan was partitioned from India.

4. Form an international agency to restore and run the Iraqi oil industry. This would be temporary until the federal state can divide the spoils without creating deeper rifts between Shia and Sunni.

5. Concentrate on money and jobs. One of the worst fruits of despotism is that the populace remains passive, uneducated, hopeless about the future, and indoctrinated with propaganda. For Iraq to live in peace, all these deficits must be lessened.

These measures would lead to an exit from a no exit situation. They would salvage our moral position and actually help the Iraqi people, who so far have been pawns in an immoral military adventure. It's unfortunate that neither the Bush White House nor their Democratic opponents have the courage to find a new way forward. The US is still rehashing failed policies and playing the blame game. The one thing that could make Iraq different from Vietnam is to consider the well-being of the people whose lives we have thrown into chaos. Everyone now repeats the same slogan: It's up to the Iraqis to solve their own horrendous situation. Actually, that's not true. It's up to us to help heal the chaos we created in the first place.