Ask Away

After much Glenfiddich-fueled haranguing, I am making good on a promise to post the following op-ed. In it, I suggest that the best ethical and strategic solution to the Iraq crisis would be to hold a referendum on the question of whether coalition forces should stay or go and let the Iraqi people decide.

I feel, however, that I should also register a few caveats. This article was written almost a year ago (and turned down by every major publication in the country) when the dynamic was essentially that of a minority Sunni terrorist insurgency murdering coalition soldiers, Shiite civilians, and police and army members, and Sunnis deemed too friendly to the coalition and government, in the hopes that the coalition would give up and go home and that the new Iraqi government would collapse. Since then, the insurgency has achieved what appears to have been one of its main goals – sparking a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Although they appear to have gotten more than they bargained for, with Shiite fundamentalist militias setting their own death squads loose on Sunnis at a terrifying rate.

The dynamic has been fundamentally altered and I’m not sure coalition troop presence, diminished or expanded, can make much of a difference anymore. Now it appears some Sunnis even want the coalition forces to stay, offering as they do the only reliable protection against the Shiite onslaught the Sunnis’ own terrorist fighters provoked. The central Iraqi government has proved unable to provide security or stability and various factions, both Sunni and Shiite, are fighting for control in an emerging power vacuum. I’m personally skeptical now that Iraq, a colonial creation sprung from Winston Churchill’s imagination, can be a functioning society or state. It’s not a community its residents want to imagine. They’re much more eager to kill each other.

The only functioning, decent part of Iraq is Kurdistan, which is stable, secure, democratic and pro-Western. Its politics are far removed from the Shiite fundamentalist fascists, Al Qaeda wannabes, and ex-Baathist psychopaths jockeying to slaughter the most people in the rest of Iraq. I now agree with Peter Galbraith (sorry, TimesSelect – baby Sulzberger needs a new pair of shoes) that about the only thing salvageable from the Iraq venture is the safeguarding of Kurdistan’s ambiguous pseudo-independence. If I had my druthers, I’d revise the following scheme to break the referendums down by region, although this would make the illusion of a unified Iraq impossible and could lead to even bloodier results. Then again, that last phrase could apply to just about any proposed solution for the Iraq debacle, and I still don’t think the following is a bad one, as far as it goes.

The Answer for Iraq – A Question

“That’s a lie,” cried Walter Wolfgang from the balcony, heckling British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as he defended the war in Iraq at September’s national conference of Britain’s ruling Labour party. The “lie” in question was Straw’s claim that Britain is in Iraq solely to
build a democratic state and remains only with Iraqi consent. But Mr. Wolfgang got no response from Straw. Instead, the diminutive 82 year-old anti-war activist was seized by burly security guards and bundled out of the assembly hall, setting off a media frenzy and a series of self-flagellating apologies from Labour party officials. Wolfgang’s claim, however, was never addressed. (Nor, for that matter, was Straw’s.)


Wolfgang is a steering-committee member of the Stop the War Coalition. Like much of the international anti-war movement, Stop the War considers the American and British coalition’s intervention in Iraq an illegal colonial enterprise. It demands a swift withdrawal of all coalition troops, claiming that the people of Iraq “have time and again insisted that they are opposed to war and occupation.” As for the coalition, its stated policy, in the words of President Bush, is to “stay the course,” having committed itself to securing a democratic Iraq governed by the will of its people. The coalition insists it has no imperial designs on Iraq or its resources and that, as Jack Straw says, its forces remain only with the consent of the Iraqis.

On the ground, the spectacular incompetence of the Bush administration’s efforts to secure Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein has resulted in strategic paralysis. Despite the extraordinary bravery of everyday Iraqis in defying terrorists to exercise their vote, resulting in the formation of a civilian Iraqi government and the ratification of an Iraqi constitution, the insurgency continues unabated, massacring civilians almost every day and seemingly at will.

Despite its high-minded talk of building democracy the coalition’s efforts are seen as having little legitimacy, either in the Arab and Muslim world or among western Europe’s liberal democracies. In America a majority now believes the Iraq war was a mistake but still opposes withdrawal. Thanks to the Rumsfeld doctrine of “Shock and Awe” there are too few troops on the ground to provide adequate security, but the suggestion of increasing troop strength is considered political kryptonite.

The policy debate is similarly paralyzed. Anti-war activists seem to have made the rather curious assumption that the Sunni and Jihadist terrorism campaign against Iraqi civilians and their government is a popular insurgency. They insist that the coalition must go. The
governments of Britain and the United States say the Iraqi people have given their assent to the occupation and insist that the troops must stay. Both the coalition and the anti-war movement claim to know and be acting in accordance with what the Iraqi people want. Quite a wonder then that no-one has asked the Iraqis.

It’s about time we did. Shouldn’t it be Iraqis themselves 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 and not imperialism, the only legitimate course of action is
to request that the Iraqi government hold a plebiscite on the question of whether and for how long coalition forces should occupy Iraq, and to abide by its results.

Such a plebiscite is the only responsible way out of the current paralysis. To withdraw without Iraqi consent would be a moral and strategic disaster. A betrayal of our commitments, it would abandon Iraqis to terrorist slaughter, making a mockery of our credibility and crippling American and British foreign policy for the foreseeable future. To remain in occupation without consent is also morally unacceptable and strategically reckless. It exposes Britain and America to the charge of venal colonialism and hampers the war effort politically, diplomatically and ultimately militarily. The result of such an ongoing occupation would most likely be an emboldened insurgency, popular Iraqi uprisings and ultimate failure.

Given the current state of play, the coalition can only benefit from holding and abiding by a plebiscite. Whatever the outcome, its credibility would be bolstered (as would that of the Iraqi civilian government, which could no longer be portrayed as an American puppet
regime). If the Iraqi people told the coalition to stay, “staying the course” would suddenly be imbued with immense 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. Critics such as Mr. Wolfgang would have to pipe down and support for the war would likely increase. The coalition would become less isolated, the insurgency more so, and other democratic countries might even join the war effort. At the very least, the Iraqi insurgency would no longer be able to exploit the coalition’s international isolation and domestic opposition to weaken its resolve.

If the Iraqi people told the coalition to leave, Britain and America could claim a victory for democracy – what, after all, is more democratic than a people deciding their own fate? And since the most likely alternative under current circumstances is defeat by slow and costly attrition, withdrawing in acquiescence to the will of the people would be the most graceful and honorable exit the coalition can hope for. Whatever chaos might ensue in the wake of withdrawal would have less strategic impact on the coalition powers, who would be
inoculated against more extensive blame by their democratic deference.
Perhaps most crucially, an Arab and Muslim world suspicious of American motives and resentful of its domination would see the world’s superpower leave Arab land at the behest of an Arab people – a boon to America’s image abroad worth a thousand Karen Hughes.

But is holding a plebiscite even feasible? Three successful national elections in the most difficult of circumstances suggest that it is. Coalition forces have proven that they can provide a basic, though not perfect level of security throughout the country for the limited
period of time such a vote would require. The insurgency has failed in its attempts to scare the Iraqi majority away from the polls. Not only would a vote on the question of whether coalition forces should stay or go be more likely to draw Sunni participation, attempts to intimidate Iraqis into voting for withdrawal would likely backfire, convincing people of the need for a continued coalition presence.

A great deal of care would certainly need to be given to the crafting of the question. To eliminate any potential disputes over interpretation the plebiscite would need to pose the question of whether coalition forces should withdraw completely by a set date, for
instance six months from the date of the vote (probably the minimum amount of time needed to withdraw the 174,000 coalition troops in an orderly fashion) – “yes or no” – and then provide a choice to those voters who say no between another plebiscite in say another 12 months or leaving the final decision to the Iraqi government. To avoid even
the appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest, the coalition and the Iraqi government could hand the administration of the plebiscite vote over to the auspices of the United Nations, which has successfully overseen plebiscites in conflict zones such as East Timor.

Any substantive objection to a plebiscite is ultimately an argument against either staying in Iraq or against withdrawal. True, the people of Britain and 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. True, to risk an Iraqi vote for withdrawal might be inimical to our national interest – a Balkan-style civil war might ensue or the world’s second largest oil reserve might fall into the hands of another wild-eyed dictator. But that risk is the price of liberation – “freedom is messy” as Donald Rumsfeld said.

The alternative is colonialism. Does it serve the strategic interests of the United States and Britain to betray their democratic commitments, exposing themselves to the world
as hypocritical colonial powers and continuing to fight a losing war without the benefit of legitimacy or Iraqi support?

Perhaps, however, the point is moot. The most valid objection to the idea of a plebiscite is that the Bush administration will never allow it. As a political analyst for the Pentagon who works closely with the administration’s hawks told me recently, the war’s architects are
rigidly committed to redeeming their strategic vision of regime change through the use of small, flexible expeditionary forces. They will not contemplate a withdrawal without a military victory over the insurgency, despite the fact that weak domestic support and a lack of credibility make such a victory almost impossible.

In the current debate, however, Bush and Rumsfeld can parry the anti-war movement ‘s demands for withdrawal with high-minded appeals to democracy and warnings against capitulation to terror. Cutting and running, abandoning Iraqis – these are not strong rallying cries. 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 plebiscite.

If this were the demand, the administration would either have to accede or be exposed as frauds. An argument for true democracy, for giving Iraqis the means to express their will on the most basic question of the war, would be impossible to reject on any grounds of principle. It might even be something worth heckling for.

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3 Comments on “Ask Away”


  1. […] According to a new poll, over 60 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S. forces and over 70 percent want them out within a year or less. Most apparently believe that the U.S. presence is provoking more conflict than it is preventing. There would seem to be no better time to implement the Westbrook Doctrine. […]


  2. […] He claims the idea for a referendum of Iraqis on the question of whether coalition forces should stay or go was in an “old column” of his. Readers of small-d know this to be bunk. That’s my joint. Sleep with one eye open, Jonah. Explore posts in the same categories: Iraq […]


  3. […] I then wrote the idea up as an op-ed and first pitched it on 10/19/05. Fie on the editor who turned me down, as did the editors of basically every major publication in the country in the ensuing months (not to mention the rags in Limeyland), the punk-ass biatches. Presumably things would have gone more smoothly had I been leggier, more of a noted Clinton-hater, or actually known what I was talking about (though I’ll note that the last of these does not appear to be a prerequisite for political punditry). It took a brave blogger to finally publish my work in March of this year, and a scotch-soaked exhortation to get me to put it up on this humble blog myself. […]


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