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October 15, 2007

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.


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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 yet we're going to facilitate some form of political solution -- with our ignorance of local realities and our not-so-hidden agendas? Like it or not, we're a destabilizing element in this already anarchic equation. A force that no one trusts cannot play honest broker.

I also think the Iraqis are right that federalism is another word for partition. If Iraq is to have any central gov't at all, that gov't has to be responsible for oil sharing and border security. But if the factions could agree on those two thorny issues, federalism wouldn't be necessary. There would be enough trust that all the groups could live happily ever after. Clearly they can't.

Nevertheless, our leaders have made clear that we're going to be there until at least 2013, so yeah, why not give it a shot? I'm sure a 5% chance is well worth it for those who have nothing invested in this operation but their credibility.

Just to be clear. I think we should be getting our troops out. You can be trying to facilitate some kind of political solution as you are doing that. But I wasn't in anyway calling for keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq, while we try this.

We can't impose anything. If we try, they will resist. The best argument for Federalism in Iraq that the United States could make would be a very humble one which would go something like this: "Sorry we've caused all of these problems for you. I know you doubt we have a solution at this point. All we can say is, things were as bad for us in the beginning and Federalism is the only thing that got us through. It's the best we can offer. But it's up to you."

That's it. That's all we can do. We can apologize, lie and claim our circumstances were as bad, hope nobody brings up the Civil War that happened decades later, and see if they buy it.

Which, they won't.

Can the troops please come home now? I'll write the Federalism letter.

This notion of a US-brokered compromise among Iraq's chief "stakeholders" seems quite otherworldly to me, Ilan.

One thing the various Iraqi factions seem to agree on is that the Americans are trying to occupy their country, more-or-less permanently. My understanding is that there is overwhelming popular disapproval of this proposition. The US having already bungled into Iraq, and having unleashed death, mayhem and torture on its people, the very idea that Iraqis are now looking for some sort of American tutelage is absurd.

The US has nothing to teach the Iraqis - nothing. That some Americans are still looking toward weird cultural incongruities and anachronisms like the American Revolution is preposterous, and gives some indication of just how impermeably dense and self-absorbed is the American noggin. Just how many more Iraqis have to die before Washington's best and brightest realize that we are bogged down in a distant foreign land with an alien culture, where we don't belong and are not wanted, and where - just maybe - we don't know what the hell we are doing? "Come up with some kind of rough sketch of what a decentralized government system might look like?" "Get their input?" We're supposed to get the Iraqis "input"? The clueless marauders are supposed to sketch out a system of government for Iraq?

You say, "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." I don't understand the logic here. Granted the Iraqi political system, such as it is, is dysfunctional. But are you claiming the the Iraqis plus the Americans comprise a more functional political system? Doesn't the preponderance of the evidence incline toward view that Iraqi society plus American intervention equals crazy dysfunctional shitstorm? Iraqis might not do a great job resolving their conflict on their own. But where is the evidence that the prospects for a resolution are better with the Americans mucking things up with soldiers and bombs and proposals and deluded academic government-sketchers?

There is a multi-sided war going on in Iraq, and the United States is one of the combatants. The US is thus in no position to be brokering some sort of compromise. It might be good for some other countries to step up however - countries with more credibility in the region.

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