Can Federalism Work?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg
It’s become cliché to argue that the only solution to Iraq is a political agreement among the various parties. But what exactly does that look like? There has been a lot of debate recently about some kind of federalist system such as the one being promoted by Joe Biden and Les Gelb. Is this a good idea?
On the con side, by trying to dictate a solution to the Iraqis the U.S. only aggravates Iraqi politicians. The Biden Amendment that passed in the Senate a couple of weeks ago provoked precisely this type of reaction. Moreover, encouraging the country to split up politically could end up excerbating the situation causing a total breakdown and partition of the country, which would lead to much greater levels of displacement and more ethnic cleansing. As Marc Lynch explained:
By passing with 75 votes a meaningless, non-binding symbolic Senate resolution in favor of the partition of Iraq, Biden managed to simultaneously: infuriate nearly all Iraqis, who have virtually unanimously condemned the resolution (as have the Arab allies of the US, for that matter); let Senate Republicans off the hook by allowing them to say that they voted for change even though they continue to vote against anything real; and endorse an unworkable plan which would massively increase human suffering while working against American interests in the region and not actually solving the problems.
On the other hand, the country is already splitting apart, and power has shifted to local actors in Anbar, the Shi’a South and the Kurdish North. Iraqi politicians have acknowledged that relying on the central government to forge some kind of reconciliation is pretty much hopeless. If we’ve learned anything in Iraq it’s that it’s much easier to go with a trend that is evolving on the ground then to try and fight it. The current constitution does allow for a federalist system, and generally speaking in countries that have been split apart by ethnic conflict a federalist system with more power at the local level has generally worked out pretty well. As Gelb and Biden put it:
Iraqis have no familiarity with federalism, which, absent an occupier or a dictator, has historically been the only path to keeping disunited countries whole. We can point to our federal system and how it began with most power in the hands of the states. We can point to similar solutions in the United Arab Emirates, Spain and Bosnia. Most Iraqis want to keep their country whole. But if Iraqi leaders keep hearing from U.S. leaders that federalism amounts to or will lead to partition, that's what they will believe…
Federalism is the one formula that fits the seemingly contradictory desires of most Iraqis to remain whole and of various groups to govern themselves for the time being.
Where do I come down? Probably the best thing the U.S. can do is come up with some kind of rough sketch of what a decentralized government system might look like. Clearly the Iraqis and their Sunni neighbors don’t like the Gelb-Biden plan, but there are many other types of decentralized approaches that might be more acceptable. Once a substantive proposal is on the table we discuss this idea with the key stakeholders inside Iraq and the neighbors, get their input, tweak the plan accordingly, and see if we can begin to find some common ground and use it as the basis for further negotiation.
For those who argue that the U.S. should just let the Iraqis figure it out, that is a pipe dream. The utterly dysfunctional political system has shown no ability to facilitate any kind of compromise. And if the U.S. just showed up at everybody’s doorstep and tried to facilitate compromise by asking them what they think, it would get a list of irreconcilable pie in the sky demands.
Overall, the probability that something like this would work is extraordinarily low (5%-10% max). Most likely the Iraqi civil war will end the way most do. The parties will eventually fight to the point of exhaustion. Still, this seems worth a try.