Time for a Popular Referendum on an Iraq Timetable

05/05/2007 06:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic leadership's decision to abandon its 180-day withdrawal timetable in the face of Bush's veto forces anti-war activists to recognize just how serous is the crisis of the democratic system of the United States. That system has utterly failed to reflect the clear will of the American people on the most fundamental problem facing the country - withdrawal from a discredited war of occupation.

No wonder so many activists on the Iraq issue support the movement to impeach both Bush and Cheney as the only way to force the U.S. government to withdraw from Iraq. After all the other avenues appear to be blocked. Unlike a parliamentary system, in which the issue of withdrawal from Iraq might have been resolved quickly with a change in government that had lost the nation's confidence, the U.S. presidential system allows the head of government to continue in office for years after losing all credibility. Thus the overwhelming anti-war vote in the last Congressional election - and its result of shifting control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats has not produced any change in national policy on the occupation of Iraq toward the expressed will of the voters.

Part of the problem is the veto power wielded by Bush, which requires an extraordinary majority to overcome. But the veto is a serious obstacle to withdrawal only because so many members of Congress refuse to represent their constituents on the issue. Underlying this crisis of American democracy is the addiction of much of the political elite to using U.S. military power. That addiction is on display every time the Democratic and Republican candidates for the 2008 presidential election start debate.

The result is a legislative process on Iraq that inevitably involves compromises not only with Bush but with those in Congress - ranging with "Blue Dog" conservative Democrats and Republicans to the Democratic Party's liberal hawks - for whom admitting the complete futility of using force in Iraq is unacceptable. As I reported late last month, even the final Democratic withdrawal plan passed by Congress and vetoed by Bush would have allowed the administration to keep tens of thousands of troops in the Sunni region indefinitely, with infinitely elastic mission of capturing or killing suspected Al Qaeda operatives.

If there were any justice in this country, Bush and Cheney would be impeached for having tricked the country into going along with the invasion of Iraq and then prolonging it through a series of manipulations. But unfortunately, the jury on the Democratic leadership's position is in, and isn't favorable.

The inability to impeach the leaders of the imperial presidency would appear to leave us with no choice but trying to make the best of a legislative process that we know will bring one cave-in after another to militarist interests. However, there is an alternative that is both more radical but also potentially more acceptable to liberal Democratic leaders in Congress. It is to let the American people themselves decide through a national referendum whether they support or reject a 180-day deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. Congress could pass legislation that would organize a one-time up or down popular vote on the issue and commit Congress to accepting the outcome as a national policy with binding force.

The use of a referendum to decide an issue would be unprecedented at the national level, even though it is now routinely used at local and state levels on a wide range of issues. But it can certainly be easily justified in this one instance by the impasse that has been created by the inability of the political elite to find a way out of the impasse over Iraq through the normal legislative process. And even though speaker Pelosi and Senate majority leader Reid haven't been able to pass legislation on Iraq that is not hopelessly mired in the militaristic bias of Congress, they might well be attracted to the simplicity of letting the people decide.

The outcome of such a national referendum on a timetable for withdrawal would hardly be in doubt. The results of the latest opinion polls on Iraq show that 60 to 67 percent of the American people want a deadline for withdrawal, and that they agree overwhelming to the one in the Democratic legislation. A CBS News/New York Times Poll April 20-24, 2007 asked, "Do you think the United States should or should not set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sometime in 2008?", to which 64 percent said it should and only 32 percent said it should not.

A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey April 18-22 asked, "Would you like to see your congressional representative vote FOR or AGAINST a bill that calls for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq to be completed by August of 2008?". A resounding 59 percent said they wanted their representative to vote for the withdrawal deadline, and only 33 percent said they wanted a vote against it.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll April 20-23, asked a similar question, "When it comes to the debate on Iraq who do you agree with more: the Democrats in Congress, who say we should set a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq; OR, President Bush, who says we should NOT set a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq?". To that, 56 percent said they agreed more with Congress, whereas just 37 percent said they agreed more with Bush.
The latest Gallup Poll, taken April 23-26, asked, "If you had to choose, which would you favor: the U.S. setting a timetable for removing its troops from Iraq and sticking to that timetable regardless of what is happening in Iraq, or the U.S. keeping troops in Iraq as long as necessary to secure the country, even if that takes many more years?" Fifty-seven percent of respondents favored setting a timetable, and 39 percent supported keeping the troops as long as necessary.
Despite the undeniable evidence of a clear national preference for a withdrawal timetable, my proposal for a national referendum on an Iraq timetable would encounter the paradox of relying on an institution that has already failed to fulfill its democratic function. Even if Congress passed the legislation on a national referendum on Iraq, there is nothing to prevent a war-crazed president from vetoing it. Then the very Congress that has failed to reflect the national would have to do what is now unable to do and override that veto.

But asking Congress to let the people decide might introduce a new political dynamic into the picture. It would be interesting to find out how many Congressman would be willing to vote against giving the American people the final say on an issue that has created such popular anger and frustration. Maybe--just maybe -- putting the question to Congress in stark terms would finally break down the political elite's disregard for the popular will. That may be the only way out of one of the darkest episodes in this nation's dark history of aggressive war.