The reason we should leave Iraq isn't because the war is costing lives, but because the war isn't critical to our national security.
Trouble is, the area is critical to our national security. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, for God's sake. It could draw its Arab neighbors into a fracticidal Sunni-Shia regional conflict. And it could draw our NATO partner Turkey to move against our stalwart Kurd allies.
Those who favor withdrawal can't be seen to be promising flowers and sweets, like the administration did before the war. When we leave, things probably will get worse. But (and here is the rhetorical frame, which also happens to have the virtue of being true): Iraqis are the only ones who can sort this out... and they can do it better by themselves.
Why? A number of reasons:
1) Civil wars are only over when one side knows it has lost. Sunnis see both Republicans and Democrats saying they want to leave; they are aware of American domestic political pressure. The Sunni insurgency will not lose hope until they can take on the Shiites solo, without American interference. Until they do so a Shiite government will not have credibility of force.
2) Any Iraqi government which depends on the protection of the Americans will not be seen as a sovereign government, thus hurting its credibility with the Iraqi people and its neighbors.
3) An Iraq government that has to cater to American desires is handicapped in building its own Iraqi constituency, which inevitably will have contrary desires to America's.
4) Only a portion of the violence in Iraq is anti-American in motivation, but it is not an insignificant portion. By disengaging in the short term and promising to withdraw in the medium-term America would be diminishing an element of opposition. Al Qaeda has very little political support in Iraq. They are thriving only because of the American presence and the anarchy present there. Once a stable government arises, Al Qaeda in Iraq will be crushed.
We have to warn the public that violence will probably get worse, and the resulting government might not be to our liking, but also make it clear that if we stayed we would probably be turning a 2-year civil war into a 10-year civil war.
In other words, we need to talk to Americans like grown-ups.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum responds by e-mail:
Points taken, but I didn't say the area wasn't critical to our national security. I said the *war* wasn't critical to our national security. In fact, I think it's detrimental. I hope this doesn't seem like nitpicking, since I think it's a pretty important difference.
I agree about the possibility that Iraq will get a lot worse once we leave. In fact, I've blogged about this a few times before. It's hard to say exactly how politicians should address this, but I agree that, one way or another, those of us who oppose the war need to prepare the public for this.
Actually, as near as I can tell, we pretty much agree with each other. If there's any real disagreement, it's pretty small.
Substantially, I think our positions are pretty close. And perhaps I didn't characterize Kevin's position fairly. But my quibble was regarding rhetorical emphasis: it's the difference between saying "the war isn't important to us" and "we aren't helping by staying." I think Americans can instinctively grasp the concept that meddling sometimes makes things worse.