What We Should Do in Iraq
We must withdraw from Iraq, where our presence fuels the insurgency. We must participate —with a greatly reduced presence—in a solution crafted by Iraq itself, with involvement and assistance from a broad community of countries.
War has its place, unfortunately, and there have been and will be unavoidable times for the United States to use its military. We believe in the need for a strong and technologically advanced military. But in initiating this war, we ignored the dictum that military action must be a last resort. Violence begets violence.
Removing Saddam revealed realities that we did not properly consider and were unprepared for: the hideously oppressive rule by a Sunni minority of a Shiite majority, the deeply-seated and ferocious desire for retribution that had built up for over thirty years inside this Shiite majority, and a historically strong, well-established Kurdish separatist movement. While extremists from outside Iraq have entered that country, their activity is dwarfed by the Shiite retribution against Sunnis that is being enacted now in what has become a widespread and terrible civil war. Combine the lack of insight on those issues with the lack of an adequate strategy and it is easy to see how — and why—chaos ensued.
To understand what to do in Iraq, we must know how Iraq was created. In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, as the Allied powers carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, the provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul were disastrously pieced together to form a new country: Iraq. The unrest and rebellion from this 1919 combination was almost immediate. The city of Mosul, in particular, was a desirable prize because of the growing recognition of the value of oil, and the British were in a position to take it:
“In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together. Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf, Baghdad had strong links with Persia; Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria. Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs in one country…The population was about half Shia Muslim and a quarter Sunni…but another division ran across the religious one: while half the inhabitants were Arab, the rest were Kurds, Persians or Assyrians. The cities were relatively advanced and cosmopolitan: in the countryside, hereditary tribal and religious leaders still dominated. There was no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab…” (Margaret McMillan, Paris 1919, Random House, 2001, pp. 397-8)
We are making the same mistake almost a century later. In Iraq, we are insisting on the co-existence and co-governance of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who have long been adversaries. The Sunnis and Shiites are the two primary branches of the Muslim religion and have been intermittent adversaries since the seventh century CE. Under Saddam, the Sunnis had oppressed the Shiites intensely for decades. The Kurds have been without a stable homeland in the Middle East for centuries, and they have regularly been persecuted and in conflict during that period.
Iraq has remained a single entity primarily because it has been ruled by an iron hand in the period since 1919, from the British to Saddam Hussein. Unless there is a change in the current structure and design of our efforts in Iraq, the only option to overcome civil war may be another iron hand.
Any plan for Iraq must recognize and properly accommodate the reality of these three constituencies. If successful, democracy can proceed. We believe that a plan to further decentralize Iraq is now a more realistic and productive next step—if we can do it soon. Anything short of this increased federalism and local autonomy among the three groups and the energies of the country will remain absorbed by this civil war.
Involvement in this process by Iraq's neighbors and other countries around the world is absolutely necessary for success. The Iraq Study Group Report puts forth an excellent plan and process for accomplishing this and accommodating the concerns and enlisting the support of these countries. The report falls short, however, on providing firm deadlines for the exit of our troops and on realistically addressing the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists authored by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress is an effective plan for a responsible withdrawal. It has the advantage of specific dates, and leaves the management of the government where it belongs—with Iraqis—including the increased federalism and sectarian separation which is already rapidly occurring by default.
If deployed in consensus with other countries, better yet is the proposal advanced by Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, which appropriately addresses the need for federalism and ethnic separation, and leans on America's more successful experience in Bosnia with the Dayton accords. David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, has endorsed this approach and labeled it “ soft partition.” Soft partition has been advocated in different ways by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute with Edward Joseph, by Pauline Baker at the Fund for Peace, and in a more extreme version, by Peter Galbraith, former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia.
As stated in the Biden/Gelb plan:
“A decade ago, Bosnia was torn apart by ethnic cleansing and facing its demise as a single country. After much hesitation, the United States stepped in decisively with the Dayton Accords, which kept the country whole by, paradoxically, dividing it into ethnic federations, even allowing Muslims, Croats and Serbs to retain separate armies. With the help of American and other forces, Bosnians have lived a decade in relative peace and are now slowly strengthening their common central government, including disbanding those separate armies last year…The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests. We could drive this in place with irresistible sweeteners for the Sunnis to join in, a plan designed by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American forces, and a regional nonaggression pact. Iraq's new government of national unity will not stop the deterioration. …
“The first is to establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multi-sectarian and international police protection… The second element would be to entice the Sunnis into joining the federal system with an offer they couldn't refuse: …money to make their oil-poor region viable. The Constitution must be amended to guarantee Sunni areas 20 percent (approximately their proportion of the population) of all revenues. …
“[T]he president must direct the military to design a plan for withdrawing and redeploying our troops from Iraq by 2008 (while providing for a small but effective residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest). We must avoid a precipitous withdrawal that would lead to a national meltdown, but we also can't have a substantial long-term American military presence...
“Fifth, under an international or United Nations umbrella, we should convene a regional conference to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and its federal system …. A ‘contact group’ of major powers would be set up to lean on neighbors to comply with the deal.” (Joseph R. Biden and Leslie H. Gelb, Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq, New York Times, May 1, 2006)
Some have argued that this would be too difficult in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk, because, unlike in Iraq’s rural areas, they are not neatly divided into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves. Yet this division is happening today through sectarian warfare, and Biden and Gelb’s plan would achieve it in a less violent way. We would agree, though, that the Biden-Gelb proposal should only be implemented with the involvement of the community of affected countries, and as modified, where possible and prudent, through dialogue with those countries. That community, through preparation and financial support, would need to successfully address the concern that this separation may increase bloodshed and disruption. America must conduct itself in such a way as to truly engage all concerned, and avoid having this effort perceived, with adverse consequences, as simply a U.S. plan.
A powerful case has been made for this increased separation in Chaim Kaufmann’s study of the analogous situation of ethnic civil wars, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars” (International Security, Spring 1996). After careful analysis of all such situations in the twentieth century, Kaufmann writes, “Stable resolutions of ethnic civil wars are possible, but only when the opposing groups are separated into defensible enclaves.” He then goes on to outline an orderly approach to attaining this separation.
In the eyes of a very large number of Iraqis, Saddam the oppressor has been replaced by the United States, the incompetent and deadly occupier. As discussed above, oppression and occupation are the two principle causes of extremism—and the Iraqi populace has now faced both in succession. The sooner we exit, the sooner the Iraqis will be relieved of the dictates of an occupier.
Without an approach such as that just outlined, we do not have a clear marker by which to know when we can leave, other than the judgment of our current administration. Not “standing down” until Iraqis “stand up” is a very hazy milestone by which to gauge our exit, especially given that things are getting worse.
An increase in troops—20,000 additional soldiers deployed to a nation of 26 million people —is now underway. This will only inflame the situation. Some have irresponsibly proposed that we seek to eliminate Muqtada al-Sadr. That would be disastrous, morally and militarily, and antagonize Iraq's majority Shia population.
Some say reducing our presence in Iraq will encourage terrorists, and all agree that a reduction might bring a temporary increase in violence. But this same stay-the-course rhetoric has been used before many times: many of the French didn’t want to leave Algeria in 1961 because it would encourage the Muslim rebellion, but the French left and by 1963 the issue was quiet. Many didn’t want America to leave Vietnam because it would encourage the communists, but we left, the communists did not extend their empire, and today Vietnam has embraced a vibrant and peaceful capitalism.
With a significantly decreased military presence, Iraq could truly proceed—hopefully on a democratic path. But the vital underpinnings to ensure economic advancement would still be absent. U.S. economic assistance to Iraq has largely dried up. We need to redeploy the money we are spending on war into economic assistance, and deal with terrorism by attacking one of the fundamental contributors to terrorism—poverty and economic exclusion.
A side note: resource-rich countries such as Iraq tend to be less successful in making across-the-board, diversified economic progress—the famous “oil curse.” Wealth breeds dependency, and there is a tendency to simply exploit this wealth rather than to develop intellectual capital and other assets. Therefore another important, but difficult, idea to consider is creation of a fund that would distribute ongoing oil revenues as dividends to the citizens of Iraq, an idea put forward by Steven C. Clemons. This has been done in Alaska, where the annual dividend to a family of four recently amounted to $8,000 per year. An Iraq Permanent Fund could send payments directly to Iraq's 6 million households, making a huge difference to families in a country whose per capita gross domestic product is about $1,800.
One final note: In resolving the problems in Iraq, as our President found out too late, we need to a dopt a rhetorical tone of goodwill as opposed to one of antagonism.