In 1864, 11 of the 36 United States did not participate in the presidential election. Was Abraham Lincoln's election therefore illegitimate? In 1868, three states did not participate in the election. Was Ulysses Grant's election illegitimate?
There has been much talk that if the Iraqi election is held and some Sunni Arab provinces (perhaps three of the 18) do not participate, the election will be illegitimate. Nonsense. The election should be held. It should be open to everyone. If Iraq's Sunni Arabs - barely 20% of the population - decide they cannot abide giving up their 80 years of minority rule, tough luck. They forfeit their chance to participate in the new Iraq.
Americans are dying right now to give them that chance. The U.S. is making a costly last-ditch effort to midwife a new, unitary Iraq. The Fallujah and related offensives are designed to reduce the brutal intimidation of the Sunni population by the dead-end Baathists and others seeking to retake the power they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
But when those offensives are over, the Sunnis will have to make a choice. Either they join the new Iraq by participating in the coming election or they institutionalize the civil war their side has already begun.
Our taking on the Sunnis is a way of showing good faith, as is our intention to hold the election no matter what. Everyone knows the outcome will be a historic transfer of power to Shiites (and, to some extent, Kurds). We must make it clear that we will be there to support that new government.
But we also have to make it clear that we are not there to lead the fight indefinitely. It is their civil war.