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October 08, 2006

Iraq in Three Parts
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

When even Armed Services Committee chair John Warner (R-Va) confesses that the Iraq war effort is "drifting sideways," its time to revisit even previously unpalatable policy alternatives that begin to look better alongside the abyss.  One such proposal is Les Gelb's idea of trying to refashion Iraq into a confederation of 3 essentially separate states: Kurd, Sunni and Shiite.  The Baker-Hamilton Commission, charged with Bush to evaluate Iraq policy options and report back after the election, is weighing this possibility, as is the Iraqi Parliament.

The gist of the idea is a weak Iraqi central government responsible for border controls, foreign affairs, and control and distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.  All other functions, including policing and security, would be devolved to three separate, though confederated, entities.

Gelb has been talking about this for nearly 3 years, during which time the inevitable failings he predicted with a unitary approach have all come to fruition.  Michael Signer has addressed Gelb's proposal several times here on Democracy Arsenal.  Back in May Gelb and Senator Joseph Biden co-authored an NYT op-ed on the subject that continuous to reverberate. 

For a long time, the plan seemed to give up too quickly on the hope of a single and stable Iraq, sowing the seeds for both internal strife within the fiefdoms and a likely resumption of interethnic and regional conflict down the road.  It was tough to face up to a fragile, fractured and politically tremulous Iraq as the end-result costing the lives of thousands of American soldiers and the valiant efforts of hundreds of thousands more.  But compared to a violent and uncontrolled inferno, a broken but at least partly stable country holds increasing appeal.  I had a chance to discuss Gelb's ideas with him in depth just last week, and think they merit a closer look now.

Here's what I like about the idea, and below that are some important caveats:

- It acknowledges that the quest for a unitary Iraq isn't progressing - Many of us have in the past urged waiting weeks, months and years to see whether conditions in Iraq don't turn a corner.  They haven't, and honest observers now admit more waiting is futile.

- Ideally, the option is a way to stop trying to impose an American vision on Iraq, and let the country's endemic political and social forces set their own course - Among the greatest flaws of the Iraq invasion and occupation is the degree to which made-in-America prescriptions were fed to an unwilling population.  Gelb and others argue, with some support, that the confederation proposal more accurately reflects where Iraq's own history and politics would lead.  The prospect of going with, rather than against Iraq's inherent grain is intrinsically appealing, though - particularly in light of polls showing more than three-fourths of Iraqis opposed to partition - we need to make sure that truths on the ground, rather than convenience and desperation, are making confederation now seem a "natural" outcome.

- Its an alternative to simple US withdrawal - Many of us are uncomfortable with simply withdrawing from Iraq (or even a more strategic redeployment) on grounds that Iraq would likely become a failed state with grave consequences for US security.

- It has the potential to prevent Iraq - or at least parts of Iraq - from becoming a failed state - The idea behind partition is that it would allow very (Kurdistan) and largely (the Shiite regions) stable areas of Iraq to more formally cordon themselves off from the violence in the center, and that Sunni Baathists - if given free rein - would stand a decent chance of being able to stamp out the insurgents and al Qaeda.

Here are some important caveats:

- It cannot be imposed from the outside - We've learned the hard way that plans made-in-America are dead-on-arrival in the Middle East, usually killing large numbers of innocents along with them.  The only way to think about effecting a confederation is by facilitating political negotiations to arrive at potential terms, and then offering the Iraqi people a referendum on whether they think the proposal offers the hope for a better future. 

- It is premised on an intricate political compromise of the sort that has been elusive in Iraq to date - While Gelb's initial proposal was not predicated on an agreement among the Kurds and Shiites to share Iraq's oil wealth with the Sunnis, subsequent versions posit that as a key piece of the formula.  Anthony Cordesman persuasively questions whether how a central government lite can possibly sustain control over the country's most valuable and contested resource.  After nearly four years of devastating struggle, its hard to see why the Sunnis agree to go their own way without oil and, per above, this is not a solution that can be imposed on them.   The plan also requires reaching agreement on a myriad of likely sticking points including contested territories like Kirkuk, the dispensation of Baghdad, ethnic population relocations, the role of a central confederation government, and the leeway to be given to each group's militias.

- The plan may or may not allow for short-term American troop drawdown -By pledging at this late date to try to effect a new and ambitious political plan for Iraq, its hard to see how the US simultaneously commits to a speedy troop drawdown.  This could mean that if the plan goes forward, withdrawal is delayed at a time of growing domestic consensus that American troops need to come home fast.  Assuming it takes 6 months to negotiate the terms of a potential confederation formula, a referendum is held and that the 3 entities are given some period to complete population transfers and restructure governing bodies, there's no reason to believe they would be any less dependent on the US to keep its finger in the dyke of all-out civil war through 2008.  Making swift troop withdrawal an integral part of the plan, irrespective of whether progress warrants it, could doom chances for a peaceful confederation.  Drawing on the example of Bosnia, as Gelb and Biden do, heavy international support has been critical to stability for over a decade.  After all we've done to Iraq, I don't see how we start machinating for a complex and wholesale reordering of the state, without sticking around long enough to help get the job done.  That said, if you believe that on the current course we'll remain in Iraq at similar troop levels for the rest of Bush's term, the confederation could offer the chance for a far less risky and quicker withdrawal scenario than does the current morass.

- Even if the idea is good, the current team of US policymakers may not be capable of implementing it - I wrote recently that while the Iraq war effort might be worth another try under different leadership, absent a change at the top talk of retooling to make US strategy more effective is futile.  The question is whether under Rumsfeld's Pentagon - with its reputation for arrogance, inability to grasp mistakes and correct course, imperviousness to outside advice, and obliviousness to the concerns of ordinary Iraqis - even our dedicated, talent and fearless military can make a viable plan work.  Some argue that the combination of Baker's influence and a realigned Congress can extract control over the next waves of Iraq policy from Rumsfeld's grasp.  Gelb did not cite a historical precedent for waging war from the halls of Capital Hill or a commission staff room, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.

- Iraq's most dangerous neighbors could make or break the plan - If the confederation of Iraq results in a Shiite state that joins forces with Syria and Iran in an aggressive effort to become the Middle East's nuclear-armed axis of destabilization, the plan could actually make a bad situation worse.  The danger of a Kurdish state provoking all-out war with Turkey is less likely and less dangerous, but would also wreak disaster for US policy interests.  The plan only works if, through an international conference involving Iraq's neighbors, confidence can be achieved that the surrounding states will help the confederation stand up on its own rather than reacting either opportunistically or provocatively.

- Chances of success are worse than even - Gelb fully admits this.  The reason he's pushing his plan is that he recognized long before most of the rest of us that under the Administration's approach to date, chances of successes are nil.


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Whom do we think we are to "refashion " Iraq? Does our invasion and unsuccessful occupation give us that right? With 776 U.S. troops wounded in action last month, the highest number since November 2004, and the fourth-highest monthly total since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, why don't we support the troops and pull them out of that hellhole?

You say that a troop pullout would lessen our superpower status by reducing US credibility (the US is already universally hated, particularly in the Muslim world), decrease our willingness to use force (goody) and lower troop morale (already accomplished). Some say that a pullout would lead to civil war--that's a done deal.

In any policy debate between a journalist (Les Gelb) and a policy expert (Juan Cole) I'll go with the arabic-literate academic.

Juan Cole:
The London Times reports that the Baker Commission will recommend a loose federal Iraq with 3 semi-autonomous regions.

This is a very bad idea for so many reasons it would take me forever to list them all. But here are a few:

1. no such loose federal arrangement would survive very long (remember the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States?), so the plan leads to the dismemberment and partition of Iraq. This outcome is unacceptable to Turkey and Saudi Arabia and therefore will likely lead to regional wars.

2. The Sunni Arabs, the Da`wa Party and the Sadr Movement are all against such a partition, and together they account for at least 123 members of the 275-member parliament. Some of the Shiite independents in the United Iraqi Alliance are also against it. I would say that a slight majority in parliament would fight this plan tooth and nail. The US cannot impose it by fiat.

3. The Sunni Arabs control Iraq's downstream water but have no petroleum resources. If the loose federal plan ends in partition, the situation is set up for a series of wars of the Sunni Arabs versus the Shiites, as well as of the Sunni Arabs and some Turkmen versus the Kurds. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia will certainly be pulled into these wars.

It is not good for the region to have a series of wars over Iraq. It is not good for the security of the United States, since those wars will probably involve pipeline sabotage by guerrillas and will likely disrupt Middle Eastern oil flows. (Did Americans like $3.20 a gallon gasoline and $300 a month heating bills? Would they like to try $15 a gallon gasoline? What do you think would happen to the world economy?)

Finally, I just don't believe that the Arab and Muslim worlds would ever forgive the US for breaking up Iraq, and there are likely to be reprisals if it happens.

I think we should let the iraqi parliament decide whatever they want to.

That conflicts with our strategic goals because they pretty definitely aren't going to decide what we want them to. But they probably have a better idea what could work than we do. So let them decide what they want, and don't pressure them.

Chances are they'll order the US troops out pretty quick. That handles our biggest problem. Then we can decide how much money we want to spend trying to help iraq recover from failed-state status while our army isn't there.

But I can't see the current US government doing that. I don't see how we can tell whether the iraqi parliament is doing what it wants or what we want, short of looking at the details and guessing. Look how long the US army pretended they weren't asking for any more troops. Rumsfeld and Bush both kept saying they'd send as many troops as the army asked for, and the army was ordered not to ask, and Rummy said with a completely straight face that they had all they asked for. Of course there's no reason to think the iraqi assembly has much of any independence, but how would US citizens prove it one way or another? There's a theoretical possibility that the iraqi government actually has some sort of say in things.

The partition agenda has always derived its most impassioned support in this country from advocates of the cause of Kurdish independence from the rest of Iraq.

I sympathize with that cause myself. I don't blame Kurds from wanting to put distance between them and the Sunni Arabs in particular. A Kurdish government sufficiently determined, nay ruthless, in the cause of limiting its cause to effective sovereignty over what has been Kurdish Iraq could negotiate its own settlements with Turkey, Iran and Iraqi Shiites, and deal with Iraq's Sunni Arabs by the simple expedient of expelling them from its territory.

Whether we have now, or could have, such a government is another question. I don't know the answer. I do know that the imperative for Americans is liquidating the commitment to Iraq, a commitment the success of which can clearly not be purchased at a price America can afford. A Kurdish state, or autonomous region, or whatever that could survive liquidation of that commitment is one I would welcome, but at the end of the day America is bound to look after its own interests first.

I'm curious what you think of this element of the May 1 Gelb-Biden proposal:

"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. For all that Iraq's neighbors might gain by picking at its pieces, each faces the greater danger of a regional war. A ''contact group'' of major powers would be set up to lean on neighbors to comply with the deal."

Is there any prospect of a "deal" that would actually be adhered to and even enforced by Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia once US troops leave (which will probably be quicker than any of us might think, once withdrawal becomes a serious policy option)?

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