Let Iraqi vote decide the big question

October 25, 2006|By Hasdai Westbrook

As Election Day approaches, American soldiers are trailing in the polls. The Iraqi polls, that is.

According to a recent survey by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, more than 60 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S. forces and more than 70 percent want those forces out within a year. Most believe that the U.S. presence is provoking more conflict than it is preventing.

The Bush administration's stated policy is to "stay the course" and secure Iraqi democracy. However, its spectacular failure to secure Iraq has resulted in strategic paralysis. Despite the formation of an Iraqi government, the Sunni insurgency has continued to attack coalition forces and massacre civilians, provoking bloody reprisals from Shiite death squads and a descent into civil war.

In America, a majority now believes the war was a mistake but still opposes withdrawal. There are too few troops to provide adequate security, but the suggestion of troop increases is considered political kryptonite.

Anti-war activists view the coalition's intervention in Iraq as imperialism. They insist that the troops must go. The administration says the Iraqi people have given their assent to the occupation and insists that the troops must stay.

Yet shouldn't it be the Iraqis who decide whether coalition forces stay or go? The coalition has no moral basis to do either without Iraqi consent. If the coalition's aim is democracy - not imperialism or abandonment - it should request that the Iraqi government hold a referendum on the question of whether, and for how long, coalition forces should occupy Iraq. Then we should abide by its results.

Such a referendum is the only responsible way out of the current paralysis. To withdraw without Iraqi consent would be a moral and strategic disaster. It would betray our commitments, abandon Iraqis to terrorist slaughter and make a mockery of our credibility. To remain in occupation without consent is also morally and strategically reckless. It exposes America to the charge of venal colonialism and hampers the war effort politically, diplomatically and, ultimately, militarily.

The coalition can only benefit from a referendum. Whatever the outcome, its credibility would be bolstered. So would that of the Iraqi government, which could no longer be portrayed as an American puppet regime.

If the Iraqis told the coalition to remain in Iraq, "staying the course" would suddenly be imbued with real legitimacy; the coalition would be in Iraq because its people want it there, making good on its commitments by acceding to their democratic will. Opponents of the war would be hard-pressed to argue that we should defy their wishes. The coalition would become less isolated, the insurgents more so. At the very least, the insurgency would no longer be able to exploit the coalition's international isolation and domestic opposition to weaken its resolve.

If the Iraqis told the coalition to leave, America could claim a victory for democracy. What, after all, is more democratic than a people deciding its own fate? And because the most likely alternative is defeat by slow and costly attrition, withdrawing in acquiescence to the will of the people would be the most graceful exit the coalition could hope for. Perhaps most crucially, an Arab world suspicious of American motives and resentful of its domination would see the world's superpower leave Arab land at the behest of Arabs - a boon to America's image abroad worth a thousand Karen Hugheses.

To risk an Iraqi vote for withdrawal might be inimical to America's short-term interests, but the alternative is colonialism. Does it serve the strategic interests of the United States to betray its democratic commitments, continuing to fight a losing war without the benefit of legitimacy or Iraqi support? On the other hand, the people of the United States can exercise their own democratic will by demanding that the troops leave - but not without ignoring the will of the Iraqi people and repudiating democracy for Iraq.

Perhaps, however, the point is moot. The most valid objection to the idea of a referendum is that the Bush administration will oppose it vehemently. As many analysts have pointed out, the war's architects are rigidly committed to redeeming their vision of regime change through small, flexible expeditionary forces. They will not contemplate a withdrawal without a military victory over the insurgency, even though weak domestic support and a lack of credibility make such a victory almost impossible.

But if critics of the war are serious about respecting Iraqis' wishes and are not simply motivated by a desire for withdrawal, they should insist on a referendum. For both the Bush administration and its opponents, rhetoric cannot be a substitute for true democratic commitment.

"Should American troops remain deployed in Iraq?" On this, the war's most basic question, the Iraqi people must have their say.

Hasdai Westbrook is co-editor of the blog smalld.wordpress.com. His e-mail is hasdai@gmail.com.

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