The welcome formation of a new unity government notwithstanding, the climate in Iraq remains poisonous. And now, observers lament, there are no more big "unifying events" on the calendar. America's reputation as freedom's champion is taking lumps around the globe, while public support here at home for the war is waning. Arab nations are using the situation in Iraq to push an anti-democratic and anti-American agenda. Terrorists have made the Iraq conflict the Spanish Civil War of the war on terror.
I have an idea to help fix all that. Let's let the Iraqi people vote on whether American troops should stay in Iraq.
President Bush has said that if a democratically elected government of Iraq asked us to leave, we would. I think Bush is sincere, but the truth is that no Iraqi government is going to ask U.S. troops to withdraw anytime soon, because American troops are the only thing holding the country together.
The Iraqi people understand this, too. In the town of Tall Afar, for example, American troops are keeping Iraqi factions from killing each other. Sheik Abdullah Al Yawar, a leading Sunni in the province, recently told The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan that if U.S. soldiers withdraw, "there will be rivers of blood." The Atlantic Monthly's Robert Kaplan (no relation) recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "My most recent searing, first-hand impression of Iraq, from last December, is this one: one town and village after another getting back on its feet, with residents telling American troops not to leave."
This is the linchpin to my idea. Having Iraqis vote on the continued presence of American troops is not some starry-eyed affair. It depends as much on fear as it does on hope.
Right now, various factions within Iraq decry the "occupation" knowing full well that American troops aren't going anywhere - and that Iraqis don't want them to. This injects poison directly into the political climate. Politicians who take the reasonable and realistic position that American troops should stay can be outflanked by demagogues claiming to be the greater patriots and nationalists. Murderers pretend to be the authentic voice of Iraqis and Muslims, and the European and Arab press are keen to give this storyline a "fair" hearing.
Even here at home, critics of the war have come to paint Iraq as an entirely cynical and gloomy affair, launched on fraudulent rationales and continued out of hubris. Ted Kennedy calls it an "occupation," and his crowd snickers at the idea that democracy has anything to do with the enterprise.
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.