A stronger, divided Iraq?

American soldiers in Iraq

America’s presence in Iraq should end, says Brendan O’Leary. But it shouldn’t happen the way many might prefer.

“Contrary to what most people think, I say if you withdraw American military support and presence from Iraqi cities and subsequently from Iraq as a whole, what you’re doing is preventing the Baghdad government from becoming too powerful and therefore a threat to both Iraq’s people and to the neighbors,” says O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science. “If you really don’t want things to disintegrate after you leave ... the answer to that is a decentralist pluralized federation. You have détente with Iran and you have public diplomacy with Turkey.”

O’Leary, a former constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government and author of numerous books on terrorism and Iraq, including the 2009 text from Penn Press, “How to Get Out of Iraq With Integrity,” says that dividing Iraq into a federation of states or provinces may actually be the wisest move for Iraq—and possibly for the region.

The success of the plan does call upon Iran and Turkey’s restraint in meddling with the new country, but O’Leary says as long as Iran is convinced the new Iraq is a friendly country, and Turkey is reassured that the Kurds aren’t planning on a bid for independence, those two powerhouses should stay out of the way.

But no matter what, O’Leary says withdrawing won’t be easy.
“If there were an easy way to achieve the centralized and integrated state that treated all individuals as equals, who could object to that? But to argue for that in the face of palpable and deep differences between Kurds and Arabs, between Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs, is a dangerous pipe dream,” he cautions.

The Current recently sat down with the Iraqi expert to understand his views on getting out of Iraq in the best way possible.

Q: What’s the best way to withdraw?
A:
If you want to get out with the minimum of horror and the maximum prospects of stabilizing Iraq as a democracy, you have to have a major rethink. Internally, you have to ask yourself what will make Iraq work best: A highly decentralized federation with minimal central capacity in Baghdad, which means that neither the Shia nor the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, nor the Kurds, will be dominated by any one group in Baghdad. They will each have maximum self-government for themselves either in their own region or in their own sets of provinces. ... It gives them sufficient things in common, such as potential agreements that they can have over natural resources and the protection of their external boundaries to keep them together.
Externally, it requires Turkey and Iran not to destroy the possibilities of an internal pluralist federation in Iraq.
Most people who don’t know anything about Iraq think that what America should do is focus on the Arabs in the neighborhood. In fact the two biggest powers in the neighborhood are Turkey and Iran and the biggest community in Iraq—the Shia Arabs—are quite well-disposed towards Iran and the Kurds are not Arabs. Therefore overly focusing on the Arab states is a mistake.

Q: Vice President Biden talked about a similar plan during the primaries, didn’t he?
A:
Well, yes and no. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he was in general quite enthusiastic about partitioning Iraq into three entities. ... To his credit, Senator Biden, when he revised his proposals that passed through the Senate, recognized that Iraq’s constitution, endorsed by four out of five of its people, made primarily by Shia Arabs and Kurds, actually offers a very good way of regionalizing power within Iraq itself. He’s played a major role in understanding that among senior American policymakers.
Senator Clinton indicated early on that she did not want a precipitous withdrawal to lead to the abandonment of the interest of the Kurds. President Obama argued that he wanted a responsible exit. Now it seems to me that all of those three individuals, in different ways, wanted to ensure that America could exit from Iraq and then they now are embarked on the task of asking how that can be done. If you think about how that can be done, you can’t actually sustain the illusion that having a strongly centralized government in Baghdad is a desirable short or medium term objective or policy. When that conclusion will be reached in large swaths of Washington, I don’t know.

Q: What is the current thinking among policymakers?
A:
Most analysts who followed the conflicts in Iraq for a long time tend, at the moment, to blame the Kurds for the failures to consolidate the constitution. They would like America to use its leverage to get the Kurds to compromise on core questions. I think that’s deeply unrealistic. I think the constitution has given the Kurds what they have sought since the formation of Iraq in 1920. It’s actually in America’s interest to allow Kurdish preferences, as present in Iraq’s constitution, to prevail and to support them.
The wise thing is to use its diplomatic leverage to ensure that Kurdistan is a satisfied region in Iraq. Then at least large swaths of the Shias will be indirectly grateful that America has not restored the Sunnis to power in any comprehensive way. The Kurds will be content and the Sunni Arabs will realize they can’t have the world they had in the past.

Q: You’ve written that the constitution, written in 2005, is the one bright spot to come out of all of this.
A:
I say it’s a bright spot and I also say it wasn’t intended by the Bush administration. When they did agree that Iraq should have a constitution, the Bush administration initially tried to write it for the Iraqis. They tried to run roughshod over the preferences of Kurds. What did they agree? They agreed to make Iraq the most decentralized federation on paper anywhere in the world. Each region is free to have its own military security. Each region has full authority over the full gamut of domestic public policymaking, other than monetary policy and the currency. The federal government doesn’t even have the independent authority to tax—that’s because Iraq has, of course, historically depended on revenue from oil. On natural resources, a deal was made in which oil and gas from existing fields would be distributed across Iraq as a whole, on a per capita basis. By contrast, new fields are under the authority and sovereignty of regions. This creates both reasonable mechanisms for a transition to a more decentralized world and an assurance to those who don’t have extensive oil and gas in their regions at the moment that there will be a long period in which they’re supplied from old Iraqi revenues on a per capita basis.

Q: So where does the debate stand now?
A:
It’s very finely drawn but the contrast is as follows: Some people think the Baghdad government should monopolize natural resources and distribute them across the whole of Iraq equally. All past periods of Baghdad dominance didn’t lead to equal distribution of wealth across Iraq. The new federal arrangement gives Saddam’s victims assurance the new world will be different than the old.
Secondly, the new arrangements don’t stop generous agreements being reached. The Kurds are quite willing to agree to share revenues from new fields with the rest of Iraq on the same basis as revenue sharing from old fields. What they’re not prepared to do is to give the Baghdad government authority to shape all allocation or to decide where investments will take place because they have bitter memories of what happened in the past. In other words, they’re afraid of theft and they’re right to be afraid.
The new constitution carefully did not entrench any form of Islam. There is a place recognized for those who are not Muslims.
Because of the historical maltreatment of African Americans in the south under slavery and afterwards, Americans are used to the ideas that state governments might abuse human rights and that the federal government would be a better source of protection. That has been the American experience. But it doesn’t follow that the rest of the world always operates in the same way. I would argue that minorities are far better treated under the Kurdistan Regional Government than they are under any of the provincial governments dominated by Arab parties at present, or by the Baghdad federal government. It’s important, therefore, that the constitution enable those regions which are more secular, more willing to protect women’s rights, willing to protect human rights. I think the new constitution not only redresses the historic grievances of Saddam’s principal victims—the Shia Arabs and the Kurds—it also genuinely provides the opportunity for a flexible system of power-sharing that stands to benefit all, including Sunni Arabs.

Originally published Feb. 5, 2009

Originally published on February 5, 2009