November 10, 2005
Avoiding the Big Questions in Iraq

By Steve Chapman

Last week, Senate Democrats infuriated Republicans by forcing a secret session on whether the administration fudged intelligence data before invading Iraq. This quarrel may be interesting for historians and campaign strategists, but it can't repeal the invasion. What it can do is allow both parties to dodge a more immediate question that they prefer not to answer: Should we stay in Iraq?

That is a question Americans are asking themselves, and increasingly, the division is not between "yes" and "no" but between "no" and "you've got to be kidding." A recent CBS News poll found that 50 percent of Americans think we should leave "as soon as possible," with only 43 percent saying we should stay the course.

Republicans, of course, refuse to consider the possibility that their leader has made a hopeless mess of the war. And while many Democrats say it was a mistake to go into Iraq, very few have the nerve to say it's also a mistake to stay. The two parties are fighting about how the war began so they don't have to talk about how it will end.

The Bush administration position is that we are building democracy and training Iraqi police and soldiers to take over the fight against the insurgents. But our efforts have yielded no progress in the war.

Recent weeks mark a new low by almost any measure. Last month, American fatalities totaled 93, the most since January. Insurgents carried out an average of 100 attacks per day, the most furious pace of the entire war. Iraqi civilians and security personnel have been dying at double the rate earlier this year.

Supporters of the war complain that the news media fail to report all the good news about Iraq. But Fox News didn't report much good news from London when terrorists set off bombs in the subway last summer, killing 52 people. Iraq suffers the equivalent of a London subway bombing every day.

We've made steps toward constitutional government in Iraq, but establishing democracy in a country racked with such turmoil is like planting pine seedlings during a forest fire -- it's not likely to succeed, and you may get killed trying.

So what should we do instead? My preference is to acknowledge that we don't know how to win the war and bring our troops home, say, week after next. That makes far more sense than persisting for another year, or two, or three, at the cost of hundreds of American lives, before we finally recognize the inevitable.

Supporters of the war insist that pulling out will doom Iraq to civil war, as if it were currently an oasis of tranquility. If the country fell into civil war, how would we tell the difference? In any case, it's just as likely that the announcement of our early departure would force Iraqis to come up with their own antidote for the insurgency.

The administration and its allies insist we have an obligation to the people of Iraq to finish what we started, no matter how much American and Iraqi blood we have to spill. Oddly, though, nobody who favors the war ever considers expanding the drive for democracy to the central issue.

"What is missing from this picture?" ask Abigail Fuller and Neil Wollman, professors at Manchester College in Indiana. "Any discussion of what the Iraqi people themselves want." They make a proposal that is long overdue: Give the Iraqi people the chance to vote on whether coalition forces should stay or go.

The administration takes great pride in midwifing democracy in Iraq. It has certainly demonstrated that it is possible to carry out mass balloting across the country, despite the insurgency. But if establishing rule by the people is our goal, we can hardly justify refusing to give Iraqis any say on our presence.

Conservatives insist we have the support of the people there. A recent secret poll commissioned by the British defense ministry, however, indicates otherwise. No fewer than 45 percent of those surveyed endorse insurgent attacks on British and American forces, and 82 percent are "strongly opposed" to the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil.

Inviting Iraqis to express their sentiments in a genuine referendum, rather than a mere poll, would clarify the issue once and for all, not to mention giving the United States crucial information about the value of our mission in Iraq.

Of course, there's always the possibility that the Bush administration will find that neither Americans nor Iraqis support its policy there. But now is no time for it to give up on democracy.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Steve Chapman

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