Iraq is mired in a Catch-22. The country is unstable because the government lacks legitimacy. The government lacks legitimacy because it wasn't elected. And you can't have elections because the country is unstable.
There may be a way to reverse this grim spiral of logic, a way to create legitimate governance and in the process peacefully disarm insurgents in Najaf, Falluja, and elsewhere. The key is to realize that elections can be incremental. They can occur in stable parts of the country before occurring in unstable parts. Moreover, successful elections in the stable parts could help peacefully stabilize the other parts, including, ultimately, the Sunni triangle.
The chain reaction could begin with President Bush and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi jointly giving Ayatollah al-Sistani a simple, ironclad guarantee: You will get elections in the predominantly Shiite part of Iraq on Oct. 1 so long as unauthorized militias are disarmed by June 15 and the Shiite insurgency ends. (Residual terrorism by Sunnis trying to disrupt elections could be kept to a tolerable level if Shiites were united in trying to preserve order.) Then, on Dec. 31, the winners of the election will be sworn in to a regional parliament that governs the Shiite part of Iraq.
This guarantee would allow al-Sistani to deliver a powerful message to Shiites: We can enter the promised land by the end of this year if Muqtada Sadr disbands his militia and other aspiring insurgents also cease and desist. The pressure on Sadr to comply would be intense.
To maximize this pressure, the United States and the United Nations could promise that the newly elected regional government would have something close to true sovereignty. If on Jan. 1, the government told coalition soldiers to retreat to remote barracks until called on, they would do so. If it told them to vacate the Shiite region entirely, they would do so within a reasonable period of time.
The offer of Oct. 1 elections would be open to all regions, and the Kurdish North, which already has a functioning parliament, presumably would qualify for them. The predominantly Sunni Arab region presumably would not. Thus, on Jan. 1, there would be a parliament in the Kurdish region and a parliament in the Shiite region, each governing its own territory. Periodically, the two would convene jointly to handle the relatively few governmental functions residing at the national level. One premise of this plan—and probably of any viable plan—is that the new Iraqi government would be decentralized, perhaps as loose a federation as envisioned by former Council on Foreign Relations President Leslie Gelb and, more recently, former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith. (Slate'sTim Noah recently appraised their approaches.)
And what of the Sunni triangle? The example of democracy—and real sovereignty—in the mainly Shiite and Kurdish parts of Iraq could inspire Sunni support for elections and thus reduce support for insurgents, perhaps carrying it below the insurgency's subsistence level. (Why keep fighting American soldiers once the Shiites have shown that you can just tell them to get lost?) Here the much-feared rivalry among Iraq's ethnicities could become an asset, creating a competitive impetus toward orderly self-government. In fact, the Sunnis' envy of their neighbors' newfound freedom might acquire a productive undercurrent of anxiety as they watched the Shiite region build its militia. A further incentive for Sunni Arabs to join the larger Iraq via elections would be the fact that Iraq's oil lies largely outside the Sunni triangle: Act now, or risk going forever without a chunk of oil revenues.
But even if Sunni elections weren't forthcoming, America would have already extracted itself from half the mess it's now in. And if coalition forces continued to police the Sunni triangle under U.N. sanction, troops now in Shiite Iraq would be freed up to help.
For this plan to fully succeed, many delicate details would have to be worked out. The structure of the national government—which should be clearly and firmly articulated before the plan is set in motion—would have to assuage the fears of the two big minority blocks, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, about the tyranny of a Shiite majority.
And drawing regional boundaries across Iraq's ethnically mottled landscape would be dicey. No borders, no matter how sinuous, would create three homogenous regions. So, the United Nations and United States would have to do what they could to protect intra-regional minority rights—both by putting them in writing and by defending them during the transition to sovereignty. As for Iraq's diverse capital: Greater Baghdad might usefully constitute a fourth region. With its substantial ethnic links to the other three regions, it would stand a chance of exerting a unifying force as long as it belonged to none of them. (Another diverse place—oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed by both Kurds and Sunni Arabs—might become a U.N. protectorate, its ultimate governance to be determined later.)
One big obstacle to implementing this plan is the mindset of the Bush White House. Administration officials would have to accept a reality they never quite acknowledged before the war: that a democratic and truly sovereign Iraq may do things the United States doesn't like. In particular, they would have to let go of a primary, if rarely articulated, motivation for the war: to use Iraq as a platform from which to project American military power.
From the beginning, this goal was essentially incompatible with the professed goal of democratizing Iraq. A democratic and sovereign Iraq was never likely to let American troops use its soil to intimidate its various neighbors. How President Bush and his advisers mentally reconciled the idealistic and realpolitik rationales for this war is a question for future psycho-historians to answer. In any event, the contradiction is now manifest, and we don't even have the luxury of choosing between the two scenarios—between a democratic but unwieldy Iraq and a non-democratic but strategically valuable Iraq. Only a stable Iraq would be useful as a strategic platform, and an Iraq being used as a strategic platform is unlikely ever to be stable.
Even once you abandon the realpolitik and try to salvage the idealism, things will remain iffy. There is of course the chance that demagogues could hijack a democracy, ushering in authoritarianism and/or theocracy. And there is the chance of a breakup into completely separate states—possibly, if we're really lucky, three or four fairly stable democracies, but more likely some combination of democracies and authoritarian states, with the risk of conflict among them (especially if ethnic minorities are persecuted).
But if democracy survived and flourished in the predominantly Shiite region, we'd at least have accomplished the laudable part of the neoconservative agenda, "planting the seed" of democracy in the Arab world—thus partly compensating for all the aspiring terrorists this war has created there and in the larger Muslim world. (And if a sovereign Kurdish state emerged, the less laudable part of that agenda—an American military presence somewhere within Iraq's current borders—might be revived. For better or worse, the administration's aims would have been miraculously salvaged by the collapse of its game plan.)
In short: This plan is a roll of the dice. But what alternative isn't? The idea behind this war was that you have to break eggs to make an omelet. Anyone who thought you could break the eggs gracefully, or that the omelet was guaranteed to materialize, was confused from the beginning. I won't mention any names.