November 25, 2003

A Very, Very Bad Idea

A Very, Very Bad Idea

With all due respect to Les Gelb, former President of the Council on Foreign Relations and an all around great guy-- this proposal would be a disaster. Commentary soon.

UPDATE:

Rarely have I been as shocked to read an opinion piece as this morning when I first saw Les Gelb's NYT op-ed (and particularly given how Gelb's moving op-eds about the Balkans in the early '90's had helped contribute to my decision to work in the former Yugoslavia).

Back then, Gelb was loudly condemning the West's cowardice in refusing to confront the genocidal actions of (mostly) Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders (though Bosnian Croats [ed. note: particularly Hercegovinians, and the Mostar batch likely the worst of the lot], and to a lesser extent, Bosnian Muslims, had blood on their hands too).

Doubtless, I trust, Gelb continues to believe in American foreign policy objectives in Bosnia--hoping to foster, even if it takes a very good while, a sustainable, unitary and multi-ethnic state. Thus my shock that Gelb would call for the cantonization of Iraq into three independent statelets:

"The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south....

This three-state solution has been unthinkable in Washington for decades. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, a united Iraq was thought necessary to counter an anti-American Iran. Since the gulf war in 1991, a whole Iraq was deemed essential to preventing neighbors like Turkey, Syria and Iran from picking at the pieces and igniting wider wars.

But times have changed. The Kurds have largely been autonomous for years, and Ankara has lived with that. So long as the Kurds don't move precipitously toward statehood or incite insurgencies in Turkey or Iran, these neighbors will accept their autonomy. It is true that a Shiite self-governing region could become a theocratic state or fall into an Iranian embrace. But for now, neither possibility seems likely."

First off, I'm a bit confused. Gelb starts by a call for moving in stages towards a "three-state solution." He then fence-sits by stating that so long as the Kurds aren't too precipitous in moving towards statehood--Turkey will accept its "autonomy." So which is it, states or autonomous entities?

Well, I think Gelb is trying to camouflage via extraneous verbiage his seeming belief and recommendation that Kurdistan would ultimately be an independent state. Why? He likely realizes that this is a major weakness in his argument so skirts the issue a bit by making a passing reference to autonomy arrangements. But, make no mistake, he's calling for a Kurdish (and Shi'a and Sunni) state(s).

But let's be perfectly clear. The moment that an independent Kurdistan were declared (if not well sooner) would be the moment there would be thousands of Turkish troops pouring over the border to fight the peshmerga. In short, a Turkish-Kurdish conflagration, and a large one, would be all but unavoidable.

On the Sunni front--Gelb basically says let's pull out our troops ("freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win") and send the U.N. in after the Sunnis have cooled down a bit. The thinking is they will collect their senses when they see how isolated they are, how they have no access to oil revenues, are denied access to borders by which to trade, and so on.

But let's be clear about one thing. If the U.S. were to suspend its counter-insurgency operations in the Sunni Triangle and pull out--this would pretty much look like an unadulaterated victory for Ba'athist die-hards and Saddam Fedayeen. They would have beaten away the Americans (Gelb has them in control of Baghdad)! Imagine the propaganda coup!

The resultant artifically hyped and misguided pan-Arab sentiment, stemming from the supposed glories of staving off the Americans, would reverberate through the region. America would be seen as a paper tiger. Make them bleed to the tune of approximately half a thousand men--and they cut and run.

Gelb: "...at the same time, draw down American troops in the Sunni Triangle and ask the United Nations to oversee the transition to self-government there. This might take six to nine months; without power and money, the Sunnis may cause trouble." [emphasis added]

You think? A marginalized, disaffected populace in the center of the country teeming with resentment (though paradoxically believing itself victorious) as all the reconstruction aid (per Gelb) goes to the Shi'a and Kurdish portions of the country. They might, you know, cause trouble?

And the Iraq gun-shy U.N. would want to go into this morass of ill will and hatred? But surely the residents of Falujah would greet the German peacekeepers with a flurry of danke sheins once the hated Americans had exited the scene, no? Wouldn't that reassure the Turtle Bay crowd? Er, think again.

Instead, we'd be creating a rump Sunni parastate that would become incredibly radicalized and mount destabalizing forays into the Kurdish and Shia's portions of the country at every opportunity.

No, engagement is the answer--not withdrawal--when it comes to the Sunni Triangle. First the insurgency needs to be quashed. Then earnest reconstruction efforts aimed at winning back hearts and minds would need to be pursued with alacrity.

On the Shi'a front Gelb writes: "It is true that a Shiite self-governing region could become a theocratic state or fall into an Iranian embrace. But for now, neither possibility seems likely".

Regarding the latter possibility, a residual sense of Iraqi nationalism, even among the Shi'a, might mean Gelb is right to be a tad sanguine about major Iranian encroachments. But I'd be very concerned about the prospects of a theocratic state emerging from a homogenous Shi'a state. After all, unmoored from the need to find common ground with their co-national Kurdish and Sunni brethren--the Shi'a would be free to rush headlong into the embrace of their common religious sect affiliation. The emergence of a theocratic state would be a very real possiblity.

But all this gets worse. What of the Sunni living in predominately Shi'a area? Or vice versa? Or Kurds in Sunni areas? Or big cities? For that matter, what would be Baghdad's status, predominately Sunni but with teeming Shi'a slums in Sadr City? Would we be withdrawing from Baghdad (as indicated above, it appears so, per Gelb!)? It seems he views the capital as part of the "Sunni" zone. We'd have lost the Battle of Baghdad, not by a dramatic force of arms, but via a voluntary retreat!

More from Gelb (on, shall we say, 'inconveniently' located minorities per his three state solution [ed. note: and what of the Turkomen, Assyrian, etc?])

"For example, they might punish the substantial minorities left in the center, particularly the large Kurdish and Shiite populations in Baghdad. These minorities must have the time and the wherewithal to organize and make their deals, or go either north or south. This would be a messy and dangerous enterprise, but the United States would and should pay for the population movements and protect the process with force."

This is all a bit too hyper-macho realpolitik (read: Mearsheimeresque) and I'm shocked to hear an internationalist with neo-Wilsonian stripes like Gelb advocating this.

I mean, this is how we export democracy to the Middle East? By organizing population transfers and providing security for said relocations? This is the spirit of Tito's Yugoslavia that Gelb (so strangely) evokes? The lessons of the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia is that it is futile to keep multiethnic polities together by force of arms? Than why is Kosovo not independent? Republika Srpska? The Croat portion of the Federation?

No, Gelb's policy proposals represent a crude reversion to primitive tribalism. Kin with kin; tribe with tribe, co-ethnicist with co-ethnicist. Shi'as to flee cosmopolitan, teeming Baghdad. Whither Kirkuk, Mosul? And who would pick the borders between the new "states"? Who would be the map drawers?

No, this scenario is truly a dismal one. In short, what Gelb advocates is just shy of madness. Please, let the serried ranks of official Washington continue to, per Gelb, "worship at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state."

There's a reason for the worship. It avoids a Turkish-Kurdish war. A theocratic Shi'a entity. A bitter Sunni parastate with a civil war era Beirut-like city (but even worse) called Baghdad at its center fostering disarray far and wide. Not to mention bloody, brutal and probably needless population transfers.

In short, conditions of anarchy. And the end of a serious American role in the vital Middle East region for many decades to come so massive a disaster we would have wrought.

It's all unthinkable really. Except that an eminent, respected foreign policy thinker like Les Gelb just advocated it in the pages of the New York Times.

Posted by Gregory at November 25, 2003 09:38 AM
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