Here’s an old idea that I’ve been noodling again for a while: Why not let the Iraqis have a referendum on whether US forces should stay? Here are some reasons, off the top of my head, and in no particular order:
1. The formation of the government is the last major political benchmark for the Iraqis, and it’s not going well. Sectarian feelings have hardened and there are few events left that can foster a sense of national unity. But a national referendum on whether Americans should stay would be exactly that.
2. If Iraqis vote yes on continuing America’s presence — which I think they would — the Iraqi people will feel more “bought-in” to America’s project.
3. It will once again signal that America is on the side of democracy while many of its opponents are not.
4. It will (further) pull anti-American elements into the electoral process.
5. It will take the burden off the new government of seeming like a lap dog to the gringos. The president and prime minister can say “I’m bowing to the will of the people” or “this issue has been settled by the people already” whenever presented with that charge.
6. It would deflate the impact of the “occupiers” epithet against Americans.
7. It would send an important signal to opponents of the war in Europe and America about the nature of the project. Could Ted Kennedy really say this is a war for Bush’s ego or for oil with so much spittle if the Iraqi people poured into the polls to ask for America to stay?
8. It would help American troop morale.
9. It would take the heat off allies — current or future — when it comes to helping in the war effort.
10. It would marry Iraqi nationalism to democratic norms and force Iraqis to think very seriously about what their country would like if America left.
11. Even the American media would have to celebrate such an event.
12. It would further bind the next president — Democratic or Republican — to finishing the job in Iraq.
13. It would have Bush talking on issues where he’s best.
Now, what if Iraqis voted no? Well, some of the above points would still hold true. Democracy will have been strengthened in Iraq. America’s commitment to democracy will have been reaffirmed in a profoundly dramatic way. The long debate leading up to the vote will have changed the tone and served to teach not only Iraqis, but the region, about how democracy works. Etc.
And while I certainly think it would be bad if Iraqis voted America out of their country, I can think of no more honorable and face-saving way for U.S. forces to exit Iraq than after a vote of this sort. It certainly beats watching people hang from the bottom of helicopters.
I think the referendum would have to be worded carefully and cleverly, and I can think of other problems and benefits, but I think as thought experiment there’s enough here to noodle.