An Iraqi referendum would counter all of that. A national debate in Iraq over the continued presence of American troops would force many Iraqis to stop taking our protection for granted. Not everyone there craves democracy, but very few of them relish the idea of a civil war. Politicians, now invested in the survival of the political system, would be forced to take the responsible position if they wanted to keep their jobs. Indeed, rhetoric and interests would converge nicely for the first time in a while. Some would undoubtedly campaign for American withdrawal, but this would probably marginalize them and show the whole world where the hearts of Iraqis really lie.
Obviously, if you know that a referendum on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq would not pass, my idea isn't so hot. But I think it would. The Kurds would overwhelmingly vote for it. As would, I think, a majority of the Shia. And the Sunnis have discovered that U.S. troops are the only thing keeping Shia militias from slitting their throats, so even the Sunnis might vote "yes" in big numbers. Some would surely vote out of fear, others hope. But they would all check the same box.
If Iraqis voted to keep American troops, everything would change. The "occupation" and "war for oil" rhetoric would be discredited overnight. America would have put its vital interest money where its principled mouth is. Iraq's anti-American factions would be further pulled into the process, even if they voted "no." The Iraqi people would "own" this project in their own right. Iraqi politicians would no longer have to worry about being called lapdogs to America - "the people have spoken," they could respond. Arab nations couldn't claim that the democratization of Iraq was inauthentic or imposed by "imperialists." Even the Europeans would be floored by the audacity of the gesture. And our own troops would have the idealism of their project reaffirmed.
But what if it failed? What if the Iraqis voted to kick us out? Well, again let me say I think this idea only makes sense if, after consulting with Iraqi politicians and others, we determine that it would likely pass. It would have to be worded in a creative way and all that. But at the end of the day, America still might lose. I'd hate to see that happen. But I can't think of a more honorable way for America to withdraw from Iraq and to prove it respects democracy. America won't bow to bullets and bombs - but it will to ballots.