Friday, September 21, 2007

The Soft Sell

The New Republic was the most important center-left periodical to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Since at least the 1980s, the magazine has been a comfortable home for liberal hawks. In 2004, TNR's editors went so far as to endorse Joe Lieberman for the Democratic presidential nomination -- about two years before Lieberman's pro-war stance cost him the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut.

While many liberal hawks and neoconservatives remain on its masthead, the New Republic has recently been rethinking some of its foreign policy positions. This editorial endorsing soft partition as a way out of Iraq is part of that process. It expresses skepticism about the prospects for Iraqi "reconciliation" in any politically feasible timeframe. It treats the Bush administration's war aims as essentially unachievable. And it acknowledges that at some point in the not too distant future, the political pressure for leaving Iraq will become difficult to ignore.

So TNR advises that we let the major ethnoreligious factions in Iraq go their own way. That means adopting a plan to "radically devolve power to Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regional governments with a central government securing the borders and parceling out oil revenues." As the editors note, this idea has broad bipartisan support. Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, both candidates for their parties' respective presidential nomination, each have plans along these lines. Partition has advocates among pundits across the ideological spectrum.

I'd like to favor a soft partition myself. The idea dispenses with the polite fiction that there is in fact a large number of Iraqis committed to a common cause or country. It is a "third way" approach aimed at mitigating the consequences of our invasion and eventual withdrawal, both for U.S. national prestige and for the Iraqis who might otherwise become victims in a humanitarian disaster. It has become more realistic as sectarian violence has made previously mixed cities more homogeneous. And even some surge supporters are willing, in effect, to go along.

Yet I'm skeptical. TNR acknowledges the pitfalls: "Aside from the Kurds and one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), none of the main Iraqi players have any interest in carving up the country. The status of Baghdad would pose a Jerusalem-like obstacle to any federal agreement, to say nothing of the details of oil-sharing and shared security. If the plan failed to thread any of these needles, it could inflame sectarian tensions rather than calm them." If those are the obstacles in Iraq, the fact that soft partition could create a bipartisan consensus in Washington sounds rather less reassuring.

Such a plan would also require us to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for several more years, potentially increasing the risks that the conflict will spread to Iran and putting more American lives in danger. Certainly for it to be deemed preferable to withdrawal we would need a better indication that a soft partition can work -- and can be facilitated by the United States -- than the fact that we can get both Democrats and Republicans to support it.

UPDATE: AmSpec's John Tabin responds here.

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