The American position in Iraq is untenable. The United States has enough raw military power to flatten Falluja and Najaf, but has recognized that this power cannot be used without dooming not only the U.S. venture in Iraq, but the entire U.S. position in the Middle East.

To this military defeat has been added the moral defeat of Abu Ghraib prison, which - domestic repercussions aside - has further inflamed Muslim anger from Morroco to Malaysia. In 1974, President Richard Nixon at the nadir of his popularity sought relief in a visit to Egypt where he was welcomed and feted. There is not an Arab capital in the world that President George W. Bush could visit today.

As a result of both defeats, it is obvious that American threats to use military force against other Muslim states are mostly empty. Power that evidently cannot be used is not true power. This revelation of actual American military weakness makes imperative a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy, not only in Iraq but also toward the Middle East as a whole.

If the United States is to put together a regional coalition to stabilize Iraq and allow eventual U.S. withdrawal, one first step is essential. Washington should categorically renounce any intention to use Iraq as a long-term U.S. military base. It should commit to withdraw U.S. forces as soon as an effective international peacekeeping force is established.

This should be matched by a dramatic reduction in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, now set to become the largest in the world, with 2,000 employees. Ambassador John Negroponte should not be set up to run U.S. Middle East counter-regime operations from Baghdad as he ran U.S. Central American counterinsurgency programs from the embassy in Honduras in the 1980s.

Without such commitments, the U.S. presence and plans in Iraq will go on being seen as an immense danger both by many Iraqis and by neighboring states, Iran and Syria in particular. It will be extremely difficult for these governments to be seen to side with the United States in stabilizing Iraq. Muslim public opinion will continue to see the U.S. campaign in Iraq as part of a strategy of imperial domination of Iraq and the region, and Muslim states that give assistance as American lackeys.

Moreover, as long as U.S. bases are present, it will be much more difficult for any Iraqi regime to portray itself as truly sovereign and not an American puppet. Radical factions will seek support by attacking the bases. The U.S. in turn will be forced to support factions that defend the bases, however unsavory and unpopular they may be. The bases will fuel internecine conflicts, and U.S. troops will be repeatedly drawn out of their bases and into direct involvement in these conflicts.

Scaling back U.S. plans for Iraq would be seen by some in Washington as a military defeat. But we believe that it is essential if the United States is to salvage the current situation. With such commitments, Iraqis who now demand America's departure may welcome America's staying long enough to ensure a stable transition. A U.S. commitment to withdraw would therefore fundamentally change the political dynamics not only in Iraq but in the region.

A new strategy for the region should be modeled on the last two decades of the cold war, when the United States sought to contain threats from the Soviet Union by aligning with Communist China. In combating Al Qaeda and Baath Party remnants, the United States must reach out to states like Syria and Iran, which it has hitherto treated as enemies.

For the past two years, the Bush administration has replicated the failure of the U.S. elites before the Vietnam War to recognize and exploit the splits already developing in the Communist camp. In the late 1960s, the result was the tragic and absurd situation where American soldiers were dying by the thousands in Vietnam in battle against a supposed global Communist threat, even as Soviet and Chinese soldiers were fighting each other along their common border.

America cannot make the same mistake again. The support and participation of Iraq's neighbors is essential if that country is to be stabilized and America to be able to withdraw without humiliation. Without their help, it is highly unlikely that the United Nations will be able to play a successful role. Given the chaos America has created, few European or other states will wish to become involved. Without the strong support of the Muslim world, the United Nations will be seen by Iraqis as simply an American tool.

Iraq's neighbors have different agendas but all fear civil war and instability in Iraq. By relinquishing fantasies of a new imperial base in Iraq, by pledging and planning to withdraw as quickly and as completely as possible, the United States may yet be able to snatch political victory from the jaws of defeat.

This work originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune on May 17, 2004. Joseph Cirincione and Anatol Lieven are senior associates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.