Should we partition Iraq?

Should we partition Iraq?

Should we partition Iraq?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 27 2004 6:56 PM

Kurd Sellout Watch, Day 421

Should we partition Iraq?

"Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state." So writes Peter Galbraith, America's pre-eminent Kurdophile, in the May 13 New York Review of Books ("How To Get Out of Iraq"). Leslie Gelb, formerly an assistant secretary in Jimmy Carter's State Department and subsequently a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, made a similar point on the Times op-ed page in November. Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who writes on military strategy, has been calling for the breakup of Iraq for nearly a year. Reluctantly, Chatterbox is starting to think Galbraith, Gelb, and Peters have a point.

"The Iraq we're trying to herd back together," Peters wrote in July 2003, "consists of three distinct nations caged under a single, bloodstained flag." Iraq was famously invented in 1921 by Winston Churchill, then the British colonial secretary tasked with carving up the recently defeated Ottoman Empire. Churchill's main concern was to consolidate areas containing, or suspected to contain, oil fields. He achieved that at the expense of long-term political stability. From the start, mistrust existed between the country's three predominant groups: the Shiite Arabs in the south, the Sunni Arabs in the middle, and the Kurds, who weren't Arabs at all, in the north. A succession of regimes managed to yoke these three groups together only through varying degrees of repression, with Saddam's the most repressive of all. Short of putting a tanned, rested, and ready Saddam back in charge—a possibility we can surely rule out—government by repression is no longer an option.

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Peters and Gelb seem to believe that the Bush administration's attempt to maintain postwar Iraq under a centralized government was doomed from the start. Galbraith, a liberal Democrat who opposed Saddam's regime well before the GOP did, thinks a unified Iraq may once have been achievable. But the failure of the United States to maintain order after the fall of Baghdad—most especially, to stop the looting of all the country's major institutions save the oil ministry—caused Iraq's professional class, "the very people the US looks to in rebuilding the country," to lose "confidence in, and respect for, the US occupation authorities." Now, Galbraith says, Humpty Dumpty can't be put together gain.

How would partition work? Gelb and Galbraith propose a very loose federation on the model of the former Yugoslavia. (Gelb envisions something akin to Yugoslavia as ruled after World War II by Marshall Tito, a Communist leader who avoided Soviet control; Galbraith prefers the model of Yugoslavia after Tito's death in 1980.) The obvious problem with this model is that the federation unraveled starting in the early 1990s, leading to bloody civil war. But Galbraith, who was ambassador to Croatia in the Clinton administration, maintains that Yugoslavia's breakup was not inevitable. If Slobodan Milosevic had been willing to settle for "a looser federation," Galbraith argues, "there is every reason to think that Yugoslavia—and not just Slovenia— would be joining the European Union this May." Gelb blames Europeans and Americans for taking too long to come to the aid of Bosnians and Croats but notes that the region is now relatively stable and that Kosovo will soon enjoy some form of autonomy.

The sharing of oil revenue would be the main function of the loose federation envisioned by Gelb, Galbraith, and Peters. Galbraith posits "a weak presidency rotating among the republics, with [further] responsibilities limited to foreign affairs, monetary policy, and some coordination of defense policy." Peters has a more radical proposal. By all means, he says, let's try the federal solution. But if the Sunnis, who are bitter about losing control over Iraq, persist in their violent rebellion against all proposed post-Saddam arrangements, Peters says we should dissolve the federation and create three "fully independent states." That, Peters notes, would "leave the Sunni Arabs to rot," since the Sunnis have no oil to speak of. In practice, Peters' plan to dissolve the federation altogether may well be what Gelb's and Galbraith's plans would lead to. "Loose federations rarely last," observes Joost Hiltermann, a human rights expert who has followed events in Iraq. (The organization he works for, International Crisis Group, has been urging Kurds to moderate their territorial demands, which would be advisable no matter what the larger outcome.)

Gelb and Galbraith both assume the Sunnis are probably ungovernable, at least for the near term. But partition, Galbraith argues, would at least limit the anarchy to "a finite area," thereby making the U.S. military's peacekeeping job easier to perform than it is now. Eventually, some sort of Sunni government would, one hopes, emerge, though given the region's propensity for thuggery (Saddam is a Sunni), it's hard to imagine that government would be a model of parliamentary democracy. Maybe the Peters threat to cut off oil revenues would help. The effectiveness of this threat can only be known down the road, when there is significant oil revenue to cut off.

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Autonomy for the Shiite region is in many ways more problematic. The Shiites wouldn't starve, because they have oil. And there's no particular reason to think they don't know how to run a free and fair election. The worry is what that free and fair election would choose. In December, Gelb said it wasn't likely that the Shiites would preside over "a theocratic state." Taking into account subsequent events, Galbraith has to concede that the Shiites are, in fact, pretty likely to vote themselves a theocratic government. That would almost certainly mean the Shiites would impose restrictions on free speech and the rights of women that Westerners and more than a few Shiites would find repugnant. But Galbraith says that if we were able to remove ourselves relatively quickly, the Shiite government might be "less overtly anti-American."

Andrew Apostolou, director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit group, is more hopeful that the Shiite theocrats can be defeated. "I don't believe that just because they're the loudest and the noisiest they're the most powerful," he told Chatterbox, citing an April 5 Guardian account of an election in Tar, a town of 15,000 people. Neither of the two Islamist candidates for 10 town council seats won. But Tar is hardly typical; it was the first town in Iraq to rise up against Saddam during the unsuccessful rebellion that followed the first Gulf war.

The third autonomous state created by the breakup of Iraq would be Iraqi Kurdistan. Autonomy is what Iraqi Kurds have long desired, and it's more or less what the No-Fly Zone created by the United States and Britain gave them after Gulf War I. The Kurds have already demonstrated that they can hold free elections and maintain a free press. An early March memo from the Coalition Provision Authority, unearthed last week by reporter Jason Vest, alludes vaguely to Kurdish corruption. (The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" columnist, Richard Leiby, says three sources told him the memo's author was former Pentagon aide Michael Rubin, though Rubin wouldn't confirm it.) The memo describes an evening with an Iraqi Kurd spent watching the Godfather trilogy and "discussing which Iraqi Kurdish politicians represented which character." But assuming that means the Kurdish leadership has a propensity for Chicago-style ward politics, its vices shouldn't cause much loss of sleep. In any event, Kurdish leaders would have a long way to go before they robbed Kurdistan of as much money as Rubin suggests the United Nations did under the Oil-for-Food program.

Just about everybody who's operating free of any bureaucratic imperatives (including Chatterbox) believes the Kurds should enjoy autonomy within whatever kind of Iraqi state emerges. God knows they've earned it. The awkward question, though, is how you grant autonomy to the Kurds while denying it to the Shiites and the Sunnis.

The probable answer is: You can't. But accepting a three-state solution, enclosed inside a loose federation or not, likely means giving up on certain aspirations. One aspiration is to make Iraq a democratic nation. More likely, it would be a two-thirds democratic federation or geographic region, with the possibility of a Sunni democracy down the road. Another aspiration is to establish the rule of law. In the short run, and perhaps even in the long, that would likely happen only in Iraqi Kurdistan. A third aspiration is to stop the killing. But that wouldn't happen in the Sunni territory, though it might happen later. A fourth and final aspiration is to avoid taking a country that was fascist, but not terribly theocratic, and allowing one-third of it to become a theocracy. This hope is not merely idealistic but also, conceivably, related to national security, insofar as the creation of any new Islamic theocracy provides a potential recruiting ground for al-Qaida. But Chatterbox doesn't have any great ideas about how to keep Iraqi Shiites from making that democratic choice. As Galbraith says, maybe they'll hate us less if we let them make that choice sooner rather than later.

What's most depressing about the Peters-Gelb-Galbraith scenario is that it would create three autonomous governments or independent states that represented only an incremental improvement on what was there before (except with regard to geopolitical stability). It would make us scratch our heads and wonder why we fought a war in Iraq. But that may be unavoidable, too.

Kurd Sellout Watch Archive:
Feb. 20, 2004: Day 355
Jan. 6, 2004: Day 310
Nov. 8, 2003: Day 251
Oct. 24, 2003: Day 236
Oct. 20, 2003: Day 232
Oct. 7, 2003: Day 219
July 27, 2003: Day 147
July 23, 2003: Day 143
May 16, 2003: Day 75
May 1, 2003: Day 60
April 25, 2003: Day 54
April 23, 2003: Day 52
April 18, 2003: Day 47
April 10, 2003: Day 39
April 3, 2003: Day 32
March 26, 2003: Day 24
March 25, 2003: Day 23
March 23, 2003: Day 21
March 21, 2003: Day 19
March 20, 2003: Day 18
March 17, 2003: Day 15
March 14, 2003: Day 12
March 11, 2003: Day 9
March 6, 2003: Day 4
March 4, 2003: Day 2
March 3, 2003: "How Screwed Are the Kurds?"