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Is it time for us to leave Iraq?

Is it time for America to leave Iraq?

It's not a rhetorical question, but one that goes deeply into our notions of who we are and how we wish to be seen _ militarily, diplomatically, politically and morally.

I wrote recently (and disapprovingly) of the views of Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, who thought America's problem in Iraq is too much squeamishness _ a "moral cowardice" that prevents our going after insurgents and the Iraqis (including family members) who give them sanctuary.

One sentence from that column contained this thought of mine: "Even those of us who thought President Bush made a hideous moral and military blunder in launching the war are largely sympathetic to the way he is conducting the aftermath _ not because it is particularly successful but because we can't think of anything better."

Well, a number of people surveying the wreckage of our Iraqi policy think the better option is simply to leave.

One of the more articulate expressions of that view is an article by Naomi Klein in the Jan. 10 issue of the Nation magazine. Her point of departure is the so-called Pottery Barn rule invoked by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his prewar advice to President Bush: "You break it, you own it."

Klein acknowledges that we've broken Iraq, but argues that our continued presence there doesn't fix anything, and only makes it worse. We don't need to "own" the country, she says, only acknowledge the breakage, pay for it, and leave.

Just leave. It sounds so simple _ so evocative of the advice Vermont's Sen. George Aiken offered another president presiding over a quagmire called Vietnam: Just declare victory and go home.

Why not now? Politically, it would require a concession _ confession? _ that the whole thing was a mistake. President Bush seems incapable of reaching or articulating such a conclusion _ unless forced to do so by a public outcry reminiscent of the Vietnam era and a diminishing ability to attract young people into the armed forces. More than 1,300 Americans troops have died in this war. What would walking away do to their families and to military morale?

What would we say to the British, the Australians and other members of the coalition that have suffered political damage and lost lives in support of our war? What friend or foe could ever again take seriously an American commitment? Even Israel might start to doubt our reliability.

What of the moral considerations? Our walking away, with or without a declaration of victory, would be a death sentence to those Iraqis who worked with us in furtherance of our announced mission to deliver democracy to Iraq.

And what, finally, of the you-break-it-you-own-it imperative (which Pottery Barn says is not its policy)?

We can argue all day that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant whose defeat and humiliation should evoke no sympathy from us. But he did have a functioning country. There was a government in place. People went to work and to the market and to school in relative safety. Can anyone really believe that the U.S.-spawned anarchy has left the Iraqi people better off? We broke it. Do we have the moral right to walk away with the shards scattered across the floor?

Do these rejoinders demolish the argument for just leaving?

Klein doesn't think so. Our continuing presence, she argues, is a magnet for violence against the Iraqis, and our plans for elections seem calculated to spark "the civil war needed to justify an ongoing presence for U.S. troops."

Our "staying the course" doesn't begin to fix what we broke, but rather continues the breakage.

Is it time for us to walk away?

A surprising number of readers of this column think it is. And two have independently come up with a pretext for doing so right away. Walter Gordon in Delaware and Christina Warren in California both argue for sending either all or a substantial portion of our Iraq-based troops and resources to the tsunami-devastated region around the Indian Ocean.

It would get us out of Iraq and, given the fact that the area is largely Muslim, might go a long way toward defeating the notion that we are anti-Islam.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group