As the Iraqi people prepare to vote on a new constitution Saturday, the political situation in that country is highly unstable. There are troubling signs of a split in the political alliance of Kurds and Shiites that has thus far kept Iraq from complete chaos. Sunni Arab leaders, meanwhile, openly call for the constitution to be defeated. And Iraqis from all ethnic groups have lost faith in the transitional government's ability to protect them or provide basic services.
Our hope was that a new constitution would serve to unite the Iraqis, but that has not happened. As Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently: "We've looked for the constitution to be a national compact, and the perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunni." Casey acknowledged that if a constitution were approved by the majority of Iraqis but disapproved by a strong minority of the Sunni Arabs, it could actually make the situation worse.
Our military leaders have long told us that there can be no purely military solution in Iraq and that a genuine, broad-based political settlement among the Iraqis is essential for success and for the defeat of the insurgency.
There is, however, one point on which leaders of the three main groups in Iraq agree: None of the Iraqi groups wants U.S. troops to leave precipitately. The Shiites want us to stay until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to deal with the insurgency on their own. The Kurds want us to remain for the impending future. And the Sunni Arab leaders want us to stay as a deterrent to those who might seek revenge against them for the actions of Saddam Hussein.
We must use that leverage -- the possibility of an American withdrawal -- to achieve the broad-based political settlement that is essential for defeating the insurgency.
I believe that if the Iraqis fail to reach a political solution by the end of the year we must consider a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. This does not mean setting a date now for departure. It simply means conveying clearly and forcefully to Iraqis that the presence of our forces is not indefinite and that our staying there requires them to come together politically, since Iraqi unity offers the only hope of defeating the insurgency.
The administration has been sending the opposite messages with repeated statements that we will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed. We should not mislead the Iraqis into thinking they have unlimited time to reach a settlement. As long as they think that way, they are less likely to make the necessary compromises. Gen. Casey acknowledged that that message is not being communicated forcefully to Iraqis.
And as we speak more realistically to the Iraqis, the administration needs to speak honestly with the American people. Exaggerating our progress in defeating the insurgency or in standing up an Iraqi army is painting the same kind of dangerous rosy scenario the administration utilized before attacking Iraq.
The administration also needs to end its own self-deception about U.S. ability to stay in Iraq. Repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained our forces and have hurt recruitment. The costs of this war have been high: more than 1,900 U.S. service members have been killed, 14,000 have been wounded, and more than $200 billion has been spent.
The American people are rapidly losing patience with the mounting casualties and costs while Iraqis squabble among themselves over their future. The administration should tell Iraqis that if they do not reach a political settlement by year's end, we will consider a timetable for our withdrawal. Making that clear to them will insert a healthy dose of mind-focusing reality that is their best hope for defeating the insurgents and becoming a nation.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Michigan.