August 17, 2005

Partitioning Iraq Is Still a Bad Idea

Michael Signer is accusing me of "demagoguery", though I'm not sure why really. If he means because I'm not ready to sign on to Les Gelb's plan to partition Iraq into three zones (Shia, Sunni and Kurd), well, OK guilty as charged. Cuz it's clear as peach that moving to partition Iraq into three zones will lead to large scale ethnic cleansing given the ethnic and sectarian mixes in cities like Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul. Below, reprinted in full, is my reaction to Gelb's WSJ op-ed from many moons back (late 2003). While I wrote this a long time ago, I continue to stand by every word. Look, if I were in a room with Les he might well admonish me and say I'm a rank "illusionist"--that reality in the form of a largely botched (though not wholly) Iraq occupation has rudely intruded on my November '03 musings. He has a point. But I'm not ready to recommend the expenditure of significant diplomatic thought, effort and capital (these being finite commodities) into figuring how best to divide Iraq into three ethnic/sectarian para-states (for many of the reasons I sketched out below). At least not at this juncture. And I'm sorry that I was a tad snarky Michael, but I still wish serious Democrats like you (and my friend your co-blogger Suzanne) were pulling for a 'success strategy' built around a democratic, unitary and viable Iraqi polity rather than looking to divvy up the country already (not that I think Suzanne thinks this is the way forward, and I gather she will be blogging more about Iraq in the coming days). Yes, it's tough, hard, ugly going--but if we remain strong and see this as a five to ten year effort I'm not sure the gig is up yet. Anyway, my Nov '03 musings follow:

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 [ed. note: Yes, indeed, this was written quite some time ago, and tragically many more of our soldiers are dead today]--and they cut and run.

Gelb: " 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.

If you're curious for more on this subject from B.D.'s perspective, click through this link and go to the multiple "here" links.

Posted by Gregory at August 17, 2005 09:44 PM | TrackBack (0)

Of course you will say "what about the Sunni bits" and "what about the Shia bits" but what has long interested me is Kurdistan and ramifications thereof. If one really wanted to twist the knickers of Kurdistan's oppressors (Iran, Syria, Iraq, and ahem Turkey) in a way that UN comfy-chair diplomacy never will, go ahead and start about ten thousand kinds of trouble there.

I think a Kurdistan would have enormous potential viability and perhaps for Machiavellian US purposes, it would serve as a better base than this current Iraq.

Perhaps we want to minimize Turkey's concerns, but is there any reason why we prefer Iran to keep its piece of the Kurds, or Syria?

Yes, I am aware of downside. Please elaborate on same. Or roll with me here, either way;>.

Posted by: Nichevo at August 18, 2005 06:58 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My friends in Foggy Bottom tell me that they have been engaged in a similar debate of autonomy vs. integration (and yes, this does hark back to Bosnia and Kosovo). And as with Bosnia and Kosovo, the correct answer for Iraq right now is neither... and both.

Consider again what I wrote in "Lessons from the Mt. Igman Road" (

"the Dayton agreement's best endorsement takes the form of its near equal criticism from both sides on the question whether Bosnia should be divided or reintegrated.... Dayton achieved the balance and ambiguity needed to close the gap between unreconcileable deeply held divisions sewn in war. We Americans (and military thinkers particularly) tend to look for solutions to problems… preferably solutions with clarity and finality. Yet desires for solution, clarity, and finality are often the worst enemies of peace whereas process, ambiguity, and delay can be peace’s greatest friend."

If Rice and Khalilzad and team understand this (not a given), then they will push for language in the constitution that leaves much to the later implementation. Shorter declarations of principles work better than detailed divisions of Federal and provincial governance.

Iraq needs time and space to recover from Saddam's rule, war and insurgency. It would be best served by a constitution that allows some flexibility and differing interpretations as to the ultimate level of Federalism.

Posted by: POTUS B at August 18, 2005 08:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Further thought: there is an important difference between Iraq and Bosnia and with regard to partition and that is that there is no Iraqi group strongly opposed to partition (as the Bosniaks were). In addition, partition of Bosnia has a more ominous moral and regional implication in that it seemed to reward Serb ethnic cleansing and validate violence as a means to break apart a nascent CEE state.

Both the Shia and Kurds favor ethnic autonomy and the Sunni objections are primarily over the division of oil revenues (and perhaps some delirious historical presumption that they will return to dominate national governance). American interests are primarily driven by exit strategy and otherwise don't conflict with partition to the degree they did in Bosnia.

So perhaps we can expect a more clearcut partition approach? Not so fast. The preference for partition in principle hits rough going when the specifics of the map and powers come into play. This involves sharing of oil revenues and deciding which city is in which area of control -- especially dicey for multiethnic cities like Kirkuk, Mosul, or even Baghdad. So this brings me back to the original thought: yes to partition and no to partition with flexibility in the agreement where necessary.

Posted by: POTUS B at August 19, 2005 03:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The whole 'exit strategy' is a red herring. What better place to have troops than Iraq? There's more work to be done. What we want is to have a reduced baseline of static coalition troops dealing with issues in country, with a surge capacity for continued regional action, while Iraqis handle day-to-day chores and grow to the point where they can defend themselves from external aggression. What more is Iran lusting for than the US 'exit strategy'? Why else haven't they done more to impede us than they have?

Posted by: Nichevo at August 19, 2005 06:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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