Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One Iraq, at least for now, Joe Biden notwithstanding 

Before you pick up the Wall Street Journal this morning and look at the front page, indulge me in a hop, skip and a jump down memory lane.

Three years ago, Joseph Biden, then the Senator from Delaware with credibility in certain circles for foreign policy expertise, began shopping a plan to divide Iraq into three "semi-autonomous" regions (bold emphasis added):

It is increasingly clear that President Bush does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq. Rather, he hopes to prevent defeat and pass the problem along to his successor...

As long as American troops are in Iraq in significant numbers, the insurgents can't win and we can't lose. But intercommunal violence has surpassed the insurgency as the main security threat. Militias rule swathes of Iraq and death squads kill dozens daily. Sectarian cleansing has recently forced tens of thousands from their homes. On top of this, President Bush did not request additional reconstruction assistance and is slashing funds for groups promoting democracy.

Iraq's new government of national unity will not stop the deterioration. Iraqis have had three such governments in the last three years, each with Sunnis in key posts, without noticeable effect. The alternative path out of this terrible trap has five elements.

The first is to establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multisectarian and international police protection...

[T]hings are already heading toward partition: increasingly, each community supports federalism, if only as a last resort. The Sunnis, who until recently believed they would retake power in Iraq, are beginning to recognize that they won't and don't want to live in a Shiite-controlled, highly centralized state with laws enforced by sectarian militias. The Shiites know they can dominate the government, but they can't defeat a Sunni insurrection. The Kurds will not give up their 15-year-old autonomy.

Some will say moving toward strong regionalism would ignite sectarian cleansing. But that's exactly what is going on already, in ever-bigger waves. Others will argue that it would lead to partition. But a breakup is already under way. As it was in Bosnia, a strong federal system is a viable means to prevent both perils in Iraq.

By September 2007, just as the Petraeus strategy was showing its first results, Biden persuaded the Senate, including 26 weak-kneed Republicans, to endorse his plan. Notably and predictably, Senator Barack Obama missed the vote.

Remember this as you take a look at the approval ratings of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. While there are still significant sectarian differences, the distance travelled is remarkable. Indeed, they compare favorably to the demographic differences in the approval ratings for most American presidents. As the linked article makes clear, sectarian differences in Iraq have not gone away, but neither are the sects forced to unite under Saddam's tyranny or, for that matter, by dint of American arm-twisting. They have, in the main, figured out that they are stronger together than apart, at least under Maliki's surprisingly wise leadership.

Pretty much every American who has ever declaimed on Iraq -- including, by the way, me -- has been substantially and profoundly wrong at some crucial juncture, but we need to remember the extent and recent proximity of Joe Biden's own wrong call because he actually appears to have some influence in the current administration. Hard as that may be to believe.

For a graphical depiction of the progress in Iraq, scroll through the current edition of Brookings' "Iraq Index," which includes page after page of graphs that show the profound progress made in that country in the last two years. It includes the original data for the Maliki approval ratings (p. 50), and the many other security, political, and economic metrics that together paint the picture of victory for the counterinsurgency.


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