Cut and Walk: What prevails in Iraq when the popular will won't?

October 9, 2006 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Mesopotamia

Cut and Walk: What prevails in Iraq when the popular will won't?

Common sense, practical necessity and the unfulfilled promise of representative government demand a reevaluation of regionalism in Iraq.

To What End Democratization?

As the Maliki government struggles to exert order, even over Baghdad, the undeniable truth is that we are out of free-election benchmarks by which to judge progress in Iraq. Saddam was deposed. De-Baathification was undertaken successfully, in the sense that the Baath party in Iraq is now finished. A constitution was designed and approved. A government was duly elected. Another government took its place. Now what?

Now, the last landmark on the horizon is a new round of talks on federalism. There is little room for maneuver. The Bush administration has adjusted to the idea that an Iraq of strongly autonomous regions may be a political necessity-and not (only) on American terms. After all: if federalization isn't a decision for Iraqis to make, whose decision is it?

The endgame question, separate from military considerations, must be asked: when has the mission of Iraqi democracy been accomplished? What else is there for America to do in this regard? Since that burden was taken on, an answer is owed; and the answer appears to be nothing. Federalization is as much a part of self-determination as any other aspect of democratic government. Secession, in our tradition, is not. But secession seems as unlikely in Iraq as federal government seems likely.

Consider the Stakes

There is no national popular will in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr's early signs of nationalism have not translated into broad-based, intrasectional support. This is one of the key signs of inadequately decentralized government.

Yet, at the same time, not one of Iraq's three factions is of much good on its own. The Kurds, though self-sufficient in most key respects, stand much more to gain as the highly autonomous Iraqi unit they already are than as an isolated, landlocked state, ringed by unsympathetic nations home themselves to diaspora populations of aggrieved Kurds.

The Sunnis are too weak, too outnumbered, and too under-resourced to manage a sovereign state-again, surrounded by dissimilar regimes. And Shiites, though dominant in a larger, oil-rich region, are susceptible, on their own, to the paranoid suspicion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the infiltrative subversion of Iran, and the problem of a substantial diaspora population of their own in Baghdad.

The legacy of colonialism and Baathist rule is such that Iraqis do not wish to cooperate closely and cannot succeed apart. Federalism has been on the table for over a year. It is plain that the risks of federalizing there have been outweighed by the cost of not doing so by now. In September 2005, I wrote(In the National Interest) that "[b]alancing the increase of power among groups which Iraqi federalism would bring is the decrease of power among tyrannical majorities throughout the greater Middle East."

The British Ahwazi Friendship Society looks to a federal constitution in Iraq as prelude to and precedent for ‘countries such as Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Syria and Iran where ethnic and religious minorities are facing political repression and economic marginalisation.' And spokesman Nasser Ban-Assad goes so far as to insist: ‘Devolution and self-determination should be a requisite for democratic reform in the Middle East. Federalism in Iraq would fuel pressures for reform across the Middle East.'

Now the Times of London reportsthat this vision is receiving the belated attention it has always deserved.

Bush and Condoleezza Rice […] have resisted the break-up of Iraq on the grounds that it could lead to more violence, but are thought to be reconsidering. ‘They have finally noticed that the country is being partitioned by civil war and ethnic cleansing is already a daily event,' said Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gelb is the co-author with Senator Joseph Biden, a leading Democrat, of a plan to divide Iraq. ‘There was almost no support for our idea until very recently, when all the other ideas being advocated failed,' Gelb said.

This may be fair enough. The best proof of a need for new ideas is the failure of all current ones, and the wisdom of many ideas is judged, like Pickett's charge, in retrospect. But determining the proper structure of political government is in many ways more important than arriving at democratic government in the first place. It took the United States a catastrophic civil war to settle once and for all the power relation of the states to the federal government. Iraq must not meet this fate.

"I think it's fair to say," James Baker recently toldABC News, "our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of ‘stay the course' and ‘cut and run.'" One such alternative course? They cut, we walk. If the Baker commission does indeed recommend that Bush support the cantonization of Iraq, the administration should act quickly and firmly to do so. The failure of governmental legitimacy has caused the Iraqi state to lose its monopoly on force. To the extent that more local Iraqi governments derive increased legitimacy from the consent of those whom they govern, that problem is mitigated.

And to that degree, the role of the United States in guaranteeing the stability of Iraq is both naturally and properly diminished. In a situation where adherence to the rule of law looks bleak, federalization offers the chance to depressurize the central government and lower the perceived political cost of playing by the rules. If the Iraqis agree to cut many national rules into federalized pieces, the United States is better able to walk away without upset over what it has left behind.

It won't be a simple process-as if we really need that warning now. A significant population exchange, largely according to faith, will almost certainly result. But one of the hard-earned lessons of the European experience has been that the tolerance of some societies sometimes reaches a breaking point. This is not a question of non-Western versus Western culture. It is a matter of practical safety and the cultural capacity to endure the intermixture of the other during times of profound instability. Regionalism is not a curse, particularly not where the largely arbitrary and never adequate "national" boundaries set by long-gone colonial regimes are concerned.

It would be an all-too-final tragedy if the real possibilities of transformational change unleashed in Iraq-at such a price to its people-were lost within a patched-up return to the old modes of rule that contributed to the congenital dysfunction of the Iraqi state for so long. Voluntary federalism, like any policy choice, would not work as a miracle drug. It would, however, enable both consolidation and distance at the right intersects of force and violence. Baghdad will remain a serious problem, but the seriously unsatisfactory trajectory of Iraq will change-in a direction that accords with common sense, practical necessity, and the unfulfilled promise of representative government.