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"Ask Iraqi Voters: Do You Want Us To Stay?"--An Op-Ed by Profs. Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff

This piece originally appeared in the Hartford Courant on January 28, 2005.

It now seems certain that, come what may, elections will be held in Iraq on Sunday. The big question is whether Sunnis will stay home.

The best-known Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced that it was pulling out of the election. Many Sunni political and religious readers are now positioning themselves to reject the vote as illegitimate.

A Sunni boycott on Sunday would be disastrous.

A new assembly dominated by Shiites (who suffered mightily under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime) would probably write a constitution that emphasizes majority rights at the expense of the 20 percent Sunni minority. This Shiite government would soon find itself fighting a largely Sunni insurgency. In the worst case, a Sunni boycott could nudge Iraq closer to civil war.

So how to induce Sunnis to risk their lives to vote?

We suggest a referendum asking the Iraqi people whether they want us to stay or not.

Tying a plebiscite to this election would have powerfully encouraged more moderate Sunnis to participate in the election. A great many Sunnis have strong feelings about the occupation. An April Gallup Poll found that nearly 60 percent of Iraqis favored the withdrawal of U.S. and British forces. This is the rare issue on which Shiites and the Sunni minority agree - the United States should leave.

Giving people a direct way to express dissatisfaction might broaden the geographic area (particularly in Sunni regions) in which polling could go forward without disruption.

A formal plebiscite would also respond to the concerns of many Sunnis that only pro-American candidates will be allowed to win the election. Candidates can be corrupted, but a referendum on U.S. withdrawal would be more transparent.

A plebiscite would signal the United States' commitment to democracy - to giving Iraqis a direct voice in their destiny. A plebiscite would also force political parties to take stands and educate their constituents on what is really best for the country. It is easy for the man or woman on the street to tell the Gallup Poll that the United States should leave. But the ruling parties must realize that a continued U.S. presence in the short run is necessary to keep order. If people really look into the abyss of a Sunni-Shiite civil war, they may decide they prefer having the coalition troops around. Candidates might be forced to speak more honestly to the voters. In fact, the plebiscite and the debate leading up to it might lead to greater support in Iraq for U.S. forces and might reduce the power of the insurgents.

In the past, we have been willing to listen to the direct voice of other electorates. In 1867, the United States was negotiating the purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark. The United States reluctantly gave in to the Danes' demand for a plebiscite to give the residents a chance to express their opinion about the transfer. When the vote was finally taken, the population of St. Thomas and St. John supported the sale by a wide margin. Indeed, the results of the plebiscite strengthened the U.S. bargaining position and should have been done much earlier in the process.

President Bush is making the same mistake now that his dad made with regard to lifting sanctions on South Africa. In 1990, Bush Senior wrung his hands about whether it was appropriate to lift trade sanctions against the liberalizing apartheid regime. Were the sanctions still helping blacks to win freedom or were they crushing economic opportunities? What he overlooked was the plebiscite alternative. South African President de Klerk was so desperate to have the sanctions lifted that Bush could have demanded a plebiscite: If a majority of South Africans - black and white - say so, we'll lift the sanctions.

Of course, there are important questions about how a plebiscite question should be framed. Instead of asking, "Should the coalition forces immediately withdraw?" we would suggest adding, "Or would you prefer to let your elected officials decide?" Or the referendum could ask, "Would you like coalition forces to remain, or would you prefer them to be replaced with U.N. forces led by Muslim countries?"

The critic will argue that this is a cynical and reckless proposal that is designed to give the United States an easy excuse to cut and run. But a plebiscite might force us to focus on the most legitimate grounds for remaining - protecting the Kurds. The Kurdish minority overwhelmingly wants us to remain and would be at great risk if we withdraw.

It's time to stop debating the wisdom of whether we should have invaded and start focusing on under what conditions it is wise to stay. Asking what the Iraqis want provides us with an entry point into grappling with this difficult issue. It's too late for Sunday's vote to include a referendum, but it would be a good first step for the new government to take.

Ian Ayres is a professor at Yale Law School. Barry Nalebuff is a professor at the Yale School of Management.