THE BEST HOPE FOR IRAQ….Juan Cole and Suzanne Nossel argue today that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster: it would leave Iraq in chaos, probably instigate a civil war, provide a safe haven for terrorism, and destabilize the entire Middle East.

Since I’ve been writing quite a bit about withdrawal from Iraq lately, there’s something I should clear up. Here it is: I agree with their assessment. That’s exactly what would happen if we withdrew immediately, and we have both a moral and a practical obligation to do everything we can to prevent it. It would be the worst possible outcome for both the Iraqi people and the security of the United States.

The question is: given the actual facts on the ground today, what’s the best way to avoid this turn of events? I think a publicly announced phased withdrawal plan is our best hope.

Consider this. By the end of 2007 we will have been in Iraq for nearly five years. At that point, if things have gotten substantially better and the insurgency is either beaten or considerably weakened, then we can leave. Conversely, if things aren’t any better, then it means we’ve lost. If we can’t achieve substantial improvement in five years, then we just can’t do it, and we might as well leave.

In other words, by the end of 2007 we’re going to leave one way or the other. That being the case, why not announce it publicly? It would partially demotivate the insurgency by giving them a firm promise that we don’t plan to occupy Iraq forever, it would help gain international support for the rebuilding effort, it would force the Iraqi government to take the training of its security forces seriously, and it would be popular with both the Iraqi and American public. What’s more, it would allow the Pentagon to plan its withdrawal methodically, instead of either being caught in a disastrous internal meltdown or finding itself in the middle of a savage civil war.

For my part, I’m partial to a plan that gradually draws down our forces based primarily (but not exclusively) on firm goals for training Iraq troops ? which should be our overwhelmingly most important task, instead of the muddled excuse-making machine it apparently is today. Such a plan would most likely be based on substantive goals along the way (training, elections, etc.), but would have a hard end date of, say, December 2007. The end state might, as Juan Cole suggests, continue to involve U.S. air support and military advisement, but no ground troops and no permanent bases. Reconstruction aid should remain as generous as possible.

Needless to say, I’m open to suggestions on the details. But let’s have the conversation.