Saturday, September 29, 2007

Partition: Biden’s Bad Idea (if we divide it up, they won’t all just get along)

Much of the criticism of the Democratic-controlled Congress can be encapsulated in a single question – “why don’t they just do something!?!” – why don’t they de-fund the war? or at least pass bills that directly contradict the White House?

Well, the Dems have now“done something”, they’ve passed bill that challenges the White House’s official policy, and they actually got 20 Republicans to join them.

The vote was non-binding, but on Wed., Sept. 21, by a count of 75-23, Congress expressed its opinion that Iraq should be divided into separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, with a weak federal government established for oil-revenue sharing. The bill runs strongly against Bush’s plans for Iraqi national unity.

The bill was officially sponsored by fledgling presidential candidate – and secretary-of-state in-waiting – Joe Biden. Among Democrats, all but Russ Feingold voted for it. At the MSNBC debate at Dartmouth just after the vote, the bill was generally warmly received. The Republicans were generally split, and, as far as I can tell, no pattern emerges among the bill supporters and detractors – the nays included administration cheerleaders like Lindsey Graham but also the dovish Chuck Hagel and the second-thoughter Lamar Alexander. Joe Liberman—whom Bush can usually be rely on—voted with his former party for partition.

Congressional independence from Bush is a good thing; however, the bill passed on Wed. was exceptionally unwise. A non-binding resolution like this one serves, in many ways, as a kind of congressional policy paper – a way to get an idea out there. In this case, partition is an exceptionally bad idea, and given that it has clearly gained currency in Congress, it is necessary to explain exactly why.

At first glance, partition is attractive for some obvious reasons.

1) A segregated Iraq is quickly becoming a reality whether Congress approves of it or not. The Iraqi civil war, unleashed after the fall of Saddam, has entailed an ethnic cleansing of various regions. The Kurds have been most successful in carving out for themselves a semi-autonomous province, and have built up a stable government – if not a particularly democratic one – where the Iraqi flag rarely flies.

2) As many in America are simply confused and fed up with sectarian violence, it’s all to easy to blissfully hope that if we’d only just divide up the warring parties and send them to their respective camps, they’d stop fighting and Iraq would be at peace.

3) A national Iraq might seem to have little rationale in the first place. The nation-state of Iraq was more or less invented in the wake of the First World War by British imperial magistrates – among them the feminist of the desert, Gertrude Bell – in way that ignored ethnic and religious divides. With no real historical raison d’être, would anyone really miss the old Iraq after we split it up?

4) Partition dictated from Washington is hardly a new idea – indeed, this has been a common strategy for stabilizing regions for the past century. Woodrow Wilson’s notion of “national determination” is not too different from Richard Holbrooke’s plans for dividing up the Balkans.

Partition is certainly attractive, but examined closely from an historical and strategic perspective, the perils of such a policy come to the fore.

1) Partition won’t stop a civil war – to the contrary.

Much of the progress that was made in the ballyhooed al-Anbar province is the result of its being an ethnically homogenous Sunni region. It’s thus useful to look at this region in imagining what rigid separatism might forebode for Iraq. The Anbar Sunnis might have rejected al-Qaeda and moved towards stability, but this does not mean that they’re anywhere closer to being able to work with the Shia-dominated parliament in Baghdad. In many ways, our arming of our new-found friends may ultimately amount to taking sides in an even broader and more violent Sunni-Shia conflict on the horizon.

The Sunnis are the Prussian of the Middle East – a small minority who think of themselves as the ruling class. Simply giving them a region might very well amount to giving them time to prepare for a violent bid for a “re-nationalization” of all of Iraq under their leadership.

2) Throughout history partition has intensified ethnic cleansing. With the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the Great War, Wilson, Llyod George, Clemenceau & Co. decided to divide up the former continental empires into nationalized statelettes – a few had some historical basis, Poland for instance, others were basically invented out of thin air, such as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

With “national determination,” it’s often difficult to determine who’s really “national.” Before the partition, many in Central Europe identified with the empires, with their religion, or else with a nation other than the newly minted one in which they are residing. – “Am I Polish, a Catholic, a German, an imperial subject?”

In all of these cases, it proved impossible to gerrymand the borders around homogeneity. Setting borders and then waiting for the right people to re-locate to the right regions is simply a euphemism for ethnic cleansing and forced-migration. With these European examples, the nations were still determining themselves for close to 30 years, ending only with the brutal expulsion of ethnic Germans, qua “Nazis,” from the former regions of Prussia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The more recent Balkan examples yield more of the same. After the 1995 Dayton Accords, Kosovo was left under Serbian rule; however, quickly thereafter, the prospect of Washington doing some more nation-building inspired the Kosovo Liberation Army to attempt secession. The “liberation” of Kosovo – with Washington’s and NATO’s full support of course – entailed the destruction of Serbian Churches and bullying, forced-exile, and even mass-murder of ethnic Serbs whose families had lived in the region region for centuries.

If we decide to divide up Iraq into ethno-regions or statelettes, should we expect a different outcome?

3) Three new countries means three new dependents for Washington to protect.

If Washington decided to will into to being three new autonomous regions or sovereign states, it will have given itself the responsibility of guaranteeing their independence. If history is a guide, we would need to intervene again and again.

The prospect, mentioned above, of a resurgent Sunni class deciding to take back the country they feel they should rule would put Washington in a truly bizarre predicament for which no clear solution exists. Scenarios such as Iran attempting to increase its influence in a Shia region – or even attempting to subsume it outright – only become more likely after a partition.

With the European examples, the new statelettes became tid-bits to be gobbled up by the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. The Second World War itself was triggered by, on the one hand, Hitler’s grasping for the Central European nations and, on the other, Britain’s and France’s guarantees of the sovereignty of the newly-minted Poland.

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There is simply no reason to believe that multiplying the political dynamics at play in Iraq will serve America’s national interest.


Coach D. said...

I've been really enjoying your blog.

As far as I can tell, every idea regarding Iraq is a bad one, and subject to an enumeration of the problems. That's easy.

The question that this piece raises isn't whether partition is bad. The question is, what's the better option? What's the best real solution and why is partition an inferior plan?

We can muddle along for a good long time in Iraq as long as action is thwarted by the search for a good solution.

ColeTrain said...

The best solution is to leave, and as quickly as possible.

There is going to be sectarian violence whether we leave or stay, Iran's influence is growing no matter what we do - it is best for America if we just march out the door.

At some point, one side or the other needs to win - that can't happen when we prop up losers and turn against allies that have gotten too strong in the region. Only when there is a clear winner (without our interference) will there be peace.