Jonah Goldberg makes an excellent proposal in the National Review (via Instapundit):
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.Do read the whole thing. I think this is a brilliant idea, and as soon as the new Iraqi government has taken office, it should be implemented. As the article itself points out, the benefits would be numerous, both for the political discourse in Iraq, in the West and in the other Arab countries. Obviously I would expect and hope the Iraqis would ask the US to keep its troops in the country for longer, and such a result would do wonders in terms of framing the debate, not least in Italy where the Prime Minister-elect, Romano Prodi, says he wants to pull out the troops and send aid workers instead. But even if the referendum is lost, not only would it give the US the best possible justification to pull out the troops without giving in to terrorism, but it would send an incredibly strong signal about the value of democracy to the whole world. As Jonah says, the message would be: "America won't bow to bullets and bombs — but it will to ballots." This seems just what is needed in Iraq's current situation and it would earn America a lot of respect and legitimacy in the eyes of the world if they followed the result of such a referendum, whatever it may be.
The Iraqi people understand this, too. In the town of Talafar, 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, "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.
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.
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.