I was wrong.
Almost three years ago we went into Iraq to remove what we were told -- and what many of us believed and argued -- was a threat to America. But in fact we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction when our forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The intelligence was deeply flawed and, in some cases, manipulated to fit a political agenda.
It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake -- the men and women of our armed forces and their families -- have performed heroically and paid a dear price.
The world desperately needs moral leadership from America, and the foundation for moral leadership is telling the truth.
While we can't change the past, we need to accept responsibility, because a key part of restoring America's moral leadership is acknowledging when we've made mistakes or been proven wrong -- and showing that we have the creativity and guts to make it right.
The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate. The information the American people were hearing from the president -- and that I was being given by our intelligence community -- wasn't the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war.
George Bush won't accept responsibility for his mistakes. Along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he has made horrible mistakes at almost every step: failed diplomacy; not going in with enough troops; not giving our forces the equipment they need; not having a plan for peace.
Because of these failures, Iraq is a mess and has become a far greater threat than it ever was. It is now a haven for terrorists, and our presence there is draining the goodwill our country once enjoyed, diminishing our global standing. It has made fighting the global war against terrorist organizations more difficult, not less.
The urgent question isn't how we got here but what we do now. We have to give our troops a way to end their mission honorably. That means leaving behind a success, not a failure.
What is success? I don't think it is Iraq as a Jeffersonian democracy. I think it is an Iraq that is relatively stable, largely self-sufficient, comparatively open and free, and in control of its own destiny.
A plan for success needs to focus on three interlocking objectives: reducing the American presence, building Iraq's capacity and getting other countries to meet their responsibilities to help.
First, we need to remove the image of an imperialist America from the landscape of Iraq. American contractors who have taken unfair advantage of the turmoil in Iraq need to leave Iraq. If that means Halliburton subsidiary KBR, then KBR should go. Such departures, and the return of the work to Iraqi businesses, would be a real statement about our hopes for the new nation.
We also need to show Iraq and the world that we will not stay there forever. We've reached the point where the large number of our troops in Iraq hurts, not helps, our goals. Therefore, early next year, after the Iraqi elections, when a new government has been created, we should begin redeployment of a significant number of troops out of Iraq. This should be the beginning of a gradual process to reduce our presence and change the shape of our military's deployment in Iraq. Most of these troops should come from National Guard or Reserve forces.
That will still leave us with enough military capability, combined with better-trained Iraqis, to fight terrorists and con- tinue to help the Iraqis develop a stable country.
Second, this redeployment should work in concert with a more effective training program for Iraqi forces. We should implement a clear plan for training and hard deadlines for certain benchmarks to be met. To increase incentives, we should implement a schedule showing that, as we certify Iraqi troops as trained and equipped, a proportional number of U.S. troops will be withdrawn.
Third, we must launch a serious diplomatic process that brings the world into this effort. We should bring Iraq's neighbors and our key European allies into a diplomatic process to get Iraq on its feet. The president needs to create a unified international front.
Too many mistakes have already been made for this to be easy. Yet we must take these steps to succeed. The American people, the Iraqi people and -- most important -- our troops who have died or been injured there, and those who are fighting there today, deserve nothing less.
America's leaders -- all of us -- need to accept the responsibility we each carry for how we got to this place. More than 2,000 Americans have lost their lives in this war, and more than 150,000 are fighting there today. They and their families deserve honesty from our country's leaders. And they also deserve a clear plan for a way out.
The writer, a former senator from North Carolina, was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2004.