Zach Shore is a historian and currrently a Fellow here at the Institute of International Studies. Zach has that rare gift of being able to move seamlessly between academic and policy debates. He also has the guts to take on some of the thorniest issues in both 'worlds'. Here's a piece he wrote recently which is (typically) provocative, challenging, smart, and at the same point, just a little bit disturbing in its implications.
Voting is the Exit Strategy
by Zachary Shore
Zachary Shore is a Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies and the author of BREEDING BIN LADENS: America, Islam, and the Future of Europe, forthcoming Johns Hopkins University Press.
When our soldiers’ death toll in Iraq recently reached 2,000, Americans held silent vigils across the nation. In Washington, however, attention mainly focused on Bush administration scandals. Despite the Iraq war’s rising costs in blood and treasure, no new strategies for defeating the insurgents have emerged since the occupation began. This failure to provide solutions is an indictment of all of Washington’s political elite. Fortunately, Iraqis have shown us a way out of the current quagmire – at the ballot box. In December, the next time that Iraqis vote, they should express their views on a question that impacts America’s future as much as their own: Do they want US forces to remain?
America has sacrificed nearly $300 billion of its national treasure and more than 12,000 of its soldiers who have been wounded or killed in the effort to democratize Iraq. How much more do Iraqis want the US to give? Let’s ask them. By allowing Iraqis to vote directly on whether they want American troops to stay in their country and for how long, three results could follow: all of them good for the US.
First, if the majority of Iraqis vote to have the Americans stay, it would deal a significant public relations blow to the insurgents. No longer could they claim that they were acting on behalf of the Iraqi people. It would be clear to all that they were defying the will of the majority. And while this would not halt their attacks, it could undermine the tacit support they draw from an ambivalent populace. It would also be a public relations coup for the Bush administration, as it could henceforth legitimately claim to be acting on behalf of the Iraqi people’s wishes.
Second, if a majority vote to have the Americans leave, then the US has a clear exit strategy. The American people will not tolerate continuing to invest their blood and treasure for a nation that does not want them – unless they believe that America’s national security is at stake. If the Bush administration refused to exit, it would need to redefine its goals in Iraq in terms of security. This would permit a new debate in which Americans could soberly assess how great a threat an unstable Iraq poses to our country, and how much burden we will bear to contain that threat.
The third possibility, the most likely one, is that the vote’s outcome would be mixed. The majority of Sunni and Shia might vote to have Americans leave, while the majority of Kurds might ask us to stay. This would allow the US to withdraw its forces to the Kurdish region, where it could concentrate its counter-insurgency war to greater effect. The insurgents would then be handicapped by having to operate in a region where they enjoy less local support. US access to local human intelligence would be enhanced. Because we would not require 150,000 forces to stabilize the Kurdish north, America could immediately begin drawing down its troop levels, bringing many young men and women back home.
Best of all, because the Kurdish region is already more stable and has potential for prosperity, America’s association with that region could bolster our nation’s image in the Middle East. Rather than looking like occupiers, US forces would be democratically welcomed, while they work to rebuild a part of Iraq. If the north does flourish, the US military presence will be viewed by other Iraqis as a force for stability and prosperity. This is what US forces would like to claim for all of Iraq, but the insurgents have shattered that hope. By concentrating our efforts in the Kurdish north, we may have the best chance to create an attractive model for the rest of the country.
Whatever the result of this referendum, the act of calling for a vote in Iraq will refocus the debate in America. Our soldiers are dying daily, and our enemies draw fresh recruits because of our continued presence – a presence never democratically legitimated by the Iraqi people. The Bush administration says, “Stay the course,” but it refuses to revise its failed strategy against the insurgents. Opponents demand either a timeline for departure or a policy of “cut and run.” But these critics don’t discuss the consequences that withdrawal will have for America.
We need our national debate to rise to a more constructive plane. The question is not whether we stay or go. The debate should be about how any new strategy will affect our security. An Iraqi referendum on our presence can take us closer to answering that key question, and to finding a sensible way forward in Iraq.