From the May 17, 2004 issue: The Bush administration seems not to recognize how widespread, and how bipartisan, is the view that Iraq is already lost or on the verge of being lost.
Accelerating the elections would have several virtues: First, it would change the subject. Instead of focusing on their anger at Americans, Iraqis would be compelled to begin focusing on the coming elections, where each and every Iraqi adult will have a chance to participate in shaping the future. Second, with elections coming quickly, those who continued to commit violence in Iraq would be understood to be attacking not only the United States, but also the elections process, and therefore democracy. The insurgents would be antidemocratic rather than anti-American. Sunnis could be told that if they want more power, they should begin organizing for the vote. Those Sunnis who committed violence would be harming the Sunni population's chances of fair representation, since violence that disrupts the voting could lead to nullification of the vote in the affected areas. The impending elections would encourage the majority of peaceful Sunnis and Shia to take sides against the guerrillas who seek power through force of arms instead of through the ballot.
Third, with elections pending, American military actions could be seen not just as an effort to suppress rebellious Iraqi movements but as a vital support for the elections process, and for democracy. Americans would be fighting to give Iraqis a chance to vote, soon. Fourth, and not least important, the holding of elections in Iraq within a few months might give Americans here at home greater confidence that things can be turned around in Iraq. Does it make that much difference whether elections are held in January 2005 or September 2004? In normal times, perhaps not. But these are not normal times. In terms of perception and psychology, both in Iraq and in the United States, we believe moving the elections to September can make a very big difference. As for those who rightly point out that the schedule we suggest would make for a hasty and imperfect election process and that much could go wrong, we agree. But even flawed elections in Iraq would contribute to a sense of political progress--of movement toward legitimate self-government--that would give us a chance of improving the situation.
In addition to setting a new date for elections, the administration would have to do a couple of other things. It would have to increase, substantially, the number of troops in Iraq in order to create a more secure environment for elections. Rep. John Murtha has been attacked by Republicans for insisting that we are unlikely to succeed in Iraq without a big increase in the number of troops. These attacks on Murtha are stupid, because he is absolutely right. The Pentagon continues to fiddle while Iraq burns. Everyone in Iraq with whom we talk bemoans the shortage of troops and equipment. It is now impossible to travel safely throughout most of Iraq. This is terrible news, and would be even if we weren't preparing for an election. But if elections are announced, the Pentagon could be forced to overcome its arrogant stubbornness and beef up the force.
Finally, the administration should use the new date for elections as an opportunity to make one more run at Europe and the international community for support. It could challenge the French and Germans to send troops to Iraq not to aid our occupation but to support elections. And aside from troops, Europeans could provide vital money and technical assistance to the elections process, which must be managed with care. We believe it would be hard for Europeans to say no when asked to support a more rapid electoral process in Iraq. The Bush administration, therefore, might be able to demonstrate to the American people that it was acting with greater success to bring the international community in to help. That too would help reverse the gloom and doom here at home.
As we say, this proposal is not a cure-all. It carries its own risks as well as benefits. If someone has a better idea, we're happy to hear it. But if the administration does not take dramatic action now, it may be unable to avoid failure.
--Robert Kagan and William Kristol