Commentary: Leaving Iraq

BAGHDAD — The dust comes in waves, turning the midday sky orange. A mother watches her son skip home from school, skirting the wood-fire roasted chicken and fish stalls. He hops up and down curbs littered with plastic bags, bottles and fruit peels. It is noon, and the air is filled with calls to prayer, floating from minarets that spike the horizon. She’s thinking back 15 years, to her own school walks in a war zone. Her parents held AK-47s and scanned for trouble as they darted from cover to cover. She smiles at how the world has changed for her child.

She looks down those same streets. The cars are new, almost shiny, and very frequently American. Police patrols are thick, and incidents of magnetic bombs stuck to the bottom of cars are rare. The few remaining 10-foot-high concrete blast walls are now dotted with banners announcing births and deaths in flowing Arabic script. Her city is peaceful.

This is a vision of what could be: Baghdad, 2019.

To many American minds today, the Iraq war is history. The United States has moved on to debating the economy, and occasionally Afghanistan. There is a school of thought that beyond the friends and family of the 4,300 troops who have died, there has been little sacrifice in the U.S. population as a whole.

And that school of thought believes, therefore, that leaving Iraq is a simple matter of packing up the tanks and shipping them home.

But that is a dangerous way to think. Iraq, 2009, is perched between stability and chaos.

Leave an unstable Iraq and it could well lead to widespread upheaval throughout the Middle East. It would be trouble far beyond disrupting energy supplies and most likely draw American forces back to the region. Troops understand that it is much easier to defend the turf you are standing on than to reclaim it.

It is not enough just to exit Iraq. America needs a good exit. That critical process begins now. Later this month, U.S. forces will pull out of Iraqi cities. By August 2010, Americans will cede all control of the country.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Iraq invasion in 2003 is that, as former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker recently said at Fort Leavenworth, America dived in without a plan. Crocker, a career diplomat chosen by President George W. Bush to run the Iraq Embassy, described the post-invasion period as "a fairly desperate exercise in trying to figure out on the spot what needed to be done next. So we learned it’s good to have a plan."

The U.S. cannot afford to leave the same way.

This is the moment for an Iraq Marshall Plan.

And the clock is ticking.

To read the complete column, visit www.kansascity.com.