Finding a way to end the Iraq war remains one of the biggest question marks on the progressive political landscape. There's a growing realization among progressives that Iraq remains the unsettled issue of the moment -- with the price tag and body count spiraling upward on a daily basis -- yet there's nothing even approaching consensus about what to do about it.

My friend Bill Towe -- a legendary Southern activist who started in the civil rights movement days and currently serves as co-chair of North Carolina Peace Action -- has authored a thoughtful Op Ed (still in search of a publisher) putting forward a proposal I haven't heard many talk about: a negotiated withdrawal.

It clearly goes beyond the fuzzy "wait and see" approach that seems to be taking hold in the political establishment (some Democratic leaders are even calling for MORE troops, in a bid to out-hawk the Bush administration -- a strategy clearly doomed to fail). But it also avoids some of the political pitfalls of the "leave now" or "timetable for withdrawal" positions, which opponents have labeled "cut and run" and which leaves unanswered the question of how the U.S. resolves it relationship with Iraq.

The Bush Administration has so completely and firmly identified itself as against any elements in Iraq that aren't "U.S.-approved," that the idea of the U.S. negotiating with such "enemies" may seem extremely remote. But as Bill notes, it's happening anyway, and maybe it's not so improbable given growing public opposition to the war -- and increasing clarity that, at this point, there's no such thing as a "good" exit strategy; that was blown apart with the onset of war in 2003.

By any measure, I think Bill's piece raises good questions, and definitely helps advance our discussion of "what next?" Here it is, a Facing South exclusive:

A Way Out - A Negotiated Withdrawal From Iraq

Citizens working to end the Iraq war need to go on the offensive and put the Bush administration and Congress on the defensive. A way to achieve this goal is to support and work for a negotiated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

A negotiated settlement is a win-win strategy, for it allows all parties to claim victory: the insurgents can claim they forced the U.S. troops to leave and the Bush administration and Congress can claim they have brought democracy and peace to the Iraqi people. None of us like to "eat crow." A settlement is far more likely to win support from the public, and in turn Congress, which has the power to end the war, rather than a unilateral date and timetable for withdrawal.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld recently acknowledged that we are secretly talking with insurgent groups and so is the U.N. A Sunni, Ayhamal-Samari who has called for the U.S. withdrawal has formed a sgroup of nationalists to give them a political voice and brokered secret talks between the U.S. and the insurgents.

The main reason for not accepting a settlement has been the belief that insurgents are hardcore Sadam terrorists and foreign terrorists. However, the evidence now available is that most of the insurgent leaders are Sunnies and would be willing to surrender if the U.S. and coalition forces were to withdraw and major concessions are made to the Sunni in the political proces by the Shiites who control the government.

The rebels don't have a single command structure but this is not an insurmountable obstacle for a negotiated settlement does not require that of all the nationalists and groups accept the agreement. To succeed, if a majority of the nationalists were to participate and the agreement resulted in a visible pullout of American and coalition forces from a few Sunni strongholds followed by an agreement on a phased pullout, this process could work (see Gareth Porter, "How to End the Occupation of Iraq," Foreign Policy In Focus, April 2005).

The withdrawal of U.S. troops would dramatically change the political context, resulting in pressure on the remaining nationalist forces to abide by the settlement. A U.N. peace force should play a major role to ensure that all parties are abiding by the agreement.

The President, Congress, and the public, need to acknowledge that the American Empire is over-extended. Before Iraq, the U.S. had 725 acknowledged military bases in over 100 countries. In addition, the U.S. now has over 100 bases in Iraq, most of which are to be turned over to the Iraqi government. But it plans to maintain four to five large bases in Iraq permanently. This is New Imperialism, under which military bases are used to control foreign nations and exploit their resource rather than permanently occupying countries (Old Imperialism).

U.S. foreign policy is creating more terrorists around the world and a further deterioration of our economic strength. China and other countries are financing the dramatically increasing U.S. trade deficit - someday the bankers will want to be repaid. Rather than developing new products and services in order to be more competitive in the global market, the U.S. is developing new weapons, including nuclear weapons, and starting wars ($230 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan). This is not the way to run a business or a nation, but even the business community does not seem to get it.

After eight years of debating exit strategies, we left Vietnam hanging on helicopters. This time lets work for a negotiated settlement to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home before it is too late.

What do you think?