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May 10, 2005

A Three-State Iraq?
Posted by Michael Signer

So, if you heard NPR's interview with Les Gelb this morning, you heard Gelb argue that Iraq will ultimately have to be a three-state confederacy -- Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the middle, Shiites in the south.  He feels that a weak central government, and relatively autonomous regions, would best keep Iraq's internal tensions from boiling over into full-fledged civil war. 

Gelb has been making the same argument for years, like in this 2003 op-ed in the New York Times.

It's the right debate to begin right now.  If the insurgency continues, the question is what direction the Administration will take on Iraq's constitutional system.  Gelb's proposal is a subtle, and quintessentially American, one (we had some experience with loose confederacies). 

There's a profound contradiction in the Bush democratization policy between the ideal of self-determination, on the one hand, and nation-state unity, on the other.  We have a difficult record on the democracy front when it comes to allowing large nation-states to stay together despite a considerable amount of misery, and tyranny, as in our support of the one China policy, and Russia over the Chechens.  See Peter Beinart's devastating TNR article from last year about Chechnya for the contradictions.

The question, then, is when we allow regional self-determination to trump national borders.  The obvious (and, apologies to the neocons, realist) answer is when American security interests are less obviously at risk with states like China and Russia.  That's when we put all our chips with the region-as-emerging-state.  Our support of increasing home rule in Northern Ireland and the Bush Administration's original goal of a Palestinian state by 2009 are obvious examples. 

So where's the breakpoint?  No China or Russia is involved in Iraq.  We can therefore be more ambitious there, and more idealistic. 

But at the same time the Administration can't allow hubris to trump clear-eyed constitutional policy in Iraq.  We shouldn't invest in an overly idealistic scheme to make the Iraqis one people if they aren't one to begin with.

So, our progressive policy elites here at home -- the check on the neocons, if you will -- should be actively thinking about the possibility of a federalist Iraq -- especially if the insurgency continues. 

In short:  thanks, NPR.


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The mix of soldiers, privateers, and mercenaries we have on the ground in Iraq may be establish a loose confederation in Iraq well ahead of whatever chickenhawk elites in Washington "decide" -- meaning diffuse responsibility for not deciding.

This would be a bottom-up undertaking. A weak confederation part is already there inside the Green Zone.


With all due respect to the chairman emeritus, a confederate Iraq would be dangerously naive at this point it time for one simple reason: Iran. A three rump state solution in Iraq, per Gelb, would invite more meddling from the mullahs in Tehran - they would like nothing more then to divert attention away from democractic yearnings at home to nationalist and religious adventurism abroad. Meddling could even turn militaristic if Iran felt compelled to assist a Shia state in Southern Iraq. For the sake of the larger democratization effort in the Middle East (including Iran), a strong if imperfect unified Iraq is better than a weak and divided one.

Gelb's point on NPR this morning, and in other venues, has been first that a federated Iraq is a realistic recognition that Iraq's political borders were a work of fiction wrought by colonizing Europeans. The consequence of that territorial allocation was first to solidify British colonial aims in the region. The second consequence, and the one we live with now, was to bring together three distinct ethnic groups with widely divergent national, religious, and cultural histories and ambitions. That sort of melting pot might work in a country, like ours, where the participants sign on for a melting pot. In a country like Iraq, where the melting happens at the barrel of a gun, the assimilation might rightly be perceived as war by other means.

All of which is to say that it will be impossible to vindicate the separate aims of (i) national self determination, (ii) democracy, and (iii) western security within Iraq's current geographical borders and with a strong, centralized government in which a majority might impose its will on a minority that already has a victimization chip on its shoulder.

Gelb's point, reasonably enough, was not that the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites ought to form their own countries. Rather, they ought to each have broad-based autonomy in the discrete geography where they live. A national organizing government ought to be responsible for foreign affairs, military security, and, of course, what to do with all that oil. It was Gelb's contention on NPR this morning that this outcome will come to pass either by negotiated compromise, by the parties, or by bloody civil war. There's a pretty good argument to be made that the latter is underway.

It bears mentioning, as Chris Hitchens has in Slate, that there is some artifice to the notion that there are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish parts of the country and that the people in one group hold themselves apart from the others. Hitchens cited examples of families inter-marrying, integrated cities, and regular commerce between the groups without discernible objection or notice among the people.

To Hitchens, I note only that it seems inescapable that there are ethnic loyalties at play in Iraq. I think one can concede that those loyalties are not everything to Iraqis, without giving up on the notion that they have some meaning and that, in broad strokes, the ethnic groups broadly match up to Sunnis, Shiite, and Kurdish alignments. That those groups work together, play together, and live together makes the notion of their confederacy more advisable, not less. It may well be that Iraqis will decide to forge a stronger union at some point in their history (we did after all, though not without our own horrific bit of bloodshed).

In the meantime, incremental approaches to union seem most likely to placate competing national aims, most likely to fulfill democratic promises, even for minorities in Iraq's artifically drawn borders, and ease Iraqis from tyranny to freedom without a hopeless and bloody civil war in between.

To DonkeyHawk, who is right to be worried about a bullying Iran, I add only that it is difficult to see how Iran's influence could be mitigated by an Iraq torn asunder by civil war. Applying coersion, to keep Iraq "strong" and "unified" at the expense of Iraqis' democratic and nationalistic impulses starts to sound more like American colonialism and Great Power politics, and less like fulfiling our national interest of bringing democracy to the world.

The point that Gelb did not mention, but bears considering is that whether Iraqis choose a loose confederacy or civil war, or a strong central government, it is difficult to imagine circumstances whereby American human, economic, and military resources are not the ultimate guarantors of security and order in Iraq for many, many years to come.

The autonomy of the Kurdish north makes some federalist solution an inevitability, but a federalism with a weak central government does not necessarily follow. It would neither lessen the probability of civil war, nor would it lead - by any means - to increased internal security. A weak central government who has to compete with the confederates for legitimacy compromises the entire country, and destroys its ability to resist external meddling.

The American experience with the Articles of Confederation is a case in point. A delegitimized central government almost destroyed the country until we came up with the Constitution. Having statelets in Iraq would be even worse. Gelb's idea is to premise the autonomous states on sectarian difference. His fantasy is that this will allow the US to withdraw from the Sunni Triangle, which will somehow draw the Sunni population into the nation as a whole.

This is an unbelievably stupid idea. Create a power vacuum in the middle of Iraq? It was the vacuum created by US non-presence in the countryside that gave the insurgents and the jihadists the foothold they needed to wage sustained warfare. We are now having to invade Anbar province all over again. And Gelb thinks creating a vacuum - after creating power centers based on mutually hostile sectarian identities - is a good thing?

What about the jihadist dimension? Is Zarqawi going to be part of the "home rule" solution? That glaring hole undermines the entire argument. Another: how will oil wealth be distributed, and by whom? Another: who will control Baghdad?

Baghdad will be the new Sarajevo.

Some kind of federalist solution is inevitable in Iraq. Gelb's solution is pure nonsense and should be dismissed out of hand. A strong central government that is properly representative should be an overwhelming priority. A legitimate central government that gives Iraqis a feeling of Iraqi identity, and one that coexists with their religious identity and individual liberty, is both desirable and possible. Gelb's solution would destroy this possibility and set all of these elements at odds with each other.

A federalist system of provinces and municipalities, oriented towards service-delivery, security, dissensus management, and representation, can co-exist with a strong central government that is also balanced, representative and capable. The dichotomy between a strong government in Baghdad and self-determination is a false one.

The idea that turning the Sunni Triangle over to the Baathists and jihadists somehow represents "self-determination" is mere platitude.

Not to make too facile of a comparion here, but a weak central government with relatively autonomous regions really kept the United States from a civil war, didn't it?

The US Civil War was the product of lots of competing normative values about government and liberty and commerce, not the least of which, Mr. Loomis correctly notes, was how strong the central government ought to be. That pot had been simmering for 70 years when it finally boiled over when the heat got turned up on slavery.

Ultimately, our country resolved that the things that made our ethnic and geographic groups dissimilar were vastly outweighed by the things we had in common. It's why federal troops don't occupy Georgia. But that was a decision our country made on its own. Iraqis, as Ms. Nossell notes, will have a similar decision to make. The difference between the American experience of the 19th Century and the Iraqi experience of the 21st: for starters, 135,000 US troops, two million barrels of oil a day, and the prospect of massive international terrorism reaching out thousands of miles away from the site of the incubating and fledgling government.

So while it would be preferable for Iraqis to make some long term decisions about their governmental structure completely on their own, free of the rest of the world's hectoring, nudging, and influence, that's not going to happen. American policy makers need to figure out what we want the answer to be for Iraqis and help move things in that direction. Simply patting Iraqis on the back, wishing them well, and waiting to see where the next shot gets fired is, frankly, unacceptable.

For those reasons, I buy Gelb's argument that a confederacy makes practical and moral sense. While we still have influence over the future of Iraq, we ought not passively allow that influence to dissipate.

";So where's the breakpoint? No China or Russia is involved in Iraq. We can therefore be more ambitious there, and more idealistic."

I tend to strongly disagree with this statement. The strategy in Iraq is mostly about Iran given Iraq's largely Shi'i population and the senior Ayotollah of the Shi'i, who happens to be Iranian and who is based in Iraq. When you look at it from a regional perspective: Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. there is very strong interest on the part of both Russia and China.

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