Iraq: A Way Out

News Abroad

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Do you remember the stories you read as a child about people whose lives were changed, usually for the worse, because of a misplaced word or a transposed comma? I was reminded of these stories recently when reading about Iraq. Iraq is collapsing because we have misplaced a word.

The word is federation.

In the year and half since the Bush administration first began championing regime change in Iraq the one assumption everybody made was that whatever came after Saddam it had to be a country that looked on the map the way Iraq does now: as a single entity, with Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites bound together as one whether they liked it or not.

It's time to reconsider this assumption.

Were Iraq divided along ethnic lines the order we are seeking could be established almost immediately in two out of three regions. The Kurds already have a functioning government in the north. Shia in the south could in short order if they were given the authority to do so. Only the Sunni-dominated region in the middle would pose a problem. But it would be far easier to try to straighten out one region rather than trying to reorder all three simultaneously.

Donald Rumsfeld likes to say that if you have a problem that seems insolvable, enlarge it. In this case, the problem can be solved by reducing it.

Heresy? Perhaps the policy wonks will think so. They have warned that we cannot divide Iraq without major risks. An independent Kurdish government in the north would possibly lead to conflict with Turkey, which worries that its own restive Kurds would be tempted to follow the example of Iraqi Kurds, leading to a separatist crisis. Iran no doubt would likely dominate any government set up by Iraqi Shia, and who wants that?

But are the fearful outcomes associated with an independent Kurdish north and Shia south any worse than the situation we are facing now? And anyway, who says an independent north and south cannot be part of an Iraqi federation, which would tend to mitigate the dangers policymakers have associated with an outright breakup of the country?

We do not have to look further than Afghanistan to see how such a federation might work. There, without much public debate, a federation is precisely what we have established. Hamid Karzai runs Kabul, the warlords run the rest of the country. There is pretense involved in the arrangement. Each of the "governors" of the states of Afghanistan swear fealty to the central government while in reality they exercise power pretty much as they wish in their own spheres. But the place remains largely peaceful. To be sure the Taliban continue to cause trouble and Afghans complain that the United States has neglected to fund the infrastructure projects needed to ignite a floundering economy and stave off a Taliban resurgence. But Afghanistan is far better off than Iraq. And a couple of billion dollars a year in direct economic aid would go far to help. Just because Afghanistan has not turned out as well as it might should not be allowed to obscure the reality that success is possible there with just a little more effort and a little more wisdom. The basic policy is sound.

The goal in Iraq is democracy. What better way to achieve it than by giving the people in the north and south the opportunity in the near future to take charge of their own governments? In return all we would ask is that they agree in advance to honor a few basic democratic principles.

No doubt forces in each region would likely want to undermine democratic efforts. But these could be kept in check by the skilful use of American aid money. Were we to adopt this approach we could immediately reduce our military force in Iraq. The Kurds and Shia could easily establish order in their regions, leaving us to tangle with the remaining Baath contingent in the Sunni-dominated middle of the country.

By turning over responsibility for security in the north and the south to Iraqis we could save billions of dollars. The money we save could be better spent on repairing Iraqi infrastructure. (We must make sure that we spend what's needed to restore Iraq's economy and not repeat the mistake made in Afghanistan.)

No doubt the situation as it developed would be a bit messy. Establishing a working government free of Baathist influence in the Sunni-dominated middle section would be difficult. But the picture would undoubtedly look brighter than it does now.

All that stands in the way of this realistic approach is the unwillingness of policymakers to take a second look at the assumption of the desirability of establishing a single central government in Iraq on which they based our policy.

Can you say the word "federation"? Let's hope our policymakers can.

Unfortunately, history suggests that they will be loath to adopt such a dramatic reversal. Long after our course in Vietnam became obviously unfruitful policymakers stuck to it. In part this was due to sheer obduracy. But it was also owing to a lack of imagination. They simply could not conceive of an alternative vision even though their own was obviously bankrupt. Poor Lyndon Johnson in the end became the most obdurate of all, refusing to acknowledge the doubts he had entertained at the beginning about the wisdom of his administration's policy. By 1968 he had pushed out of the administration all of the people who had shared those doubts, leaving he and a small coterie of true believers in charge.

Change finally came in American policy toward Vietnam only when Johnson left office. His successor Richard Nixon was as wedded to victory as LBJ but because he had no responsibility for designing the Johnson policy, Nixon felt free to adopt a new one, Vietnamization. Vietnamization did not in the end save Vietnam from communism, but the failure of Nixon's approach was ambiguous. While the South Vietnamese succumbed to the North's aggression, the United States had not simply cut and run. By 1974 when Saigon fell the United States could not be accused of fecklessness. For nearly a decade we had stuck it out under unpleasant circumstances. The collapse of Vietnam had severe consequences on domestic politics but barely weakened our position vis a vis the communists in the Cold War. In the end the Asian dominoes didn't fall, though several countries, notably Cambodia, fell victim to fanatics who gained power in part as an unintended consequence of our actions in Vietnam.

There are lessons in all this which we would be foolish to dismiss.

First, we must recognize that we may have to wait for the replacement of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Bush before meaningful change can be achieved. Until then, we may be stuck with a failed policy in Iraq.

Second, victory in Iraq may need to be redefined. The Bush administration has defined victory as the establishment of a democratic government directed from a single seat of power in Baghdad. Perhaps victory instead could be defined as the establishment of a government that is more democratic than Saddam's but not as democratic as, say, Israel's.

Third, we cannot simply up and leave Iraq. Having replaced the government there we have an obligation to establish a new one. We cannot, as was famously suggested in Vietnam, simply declare victory and go home. Such a "victory" would be a symbol to both our enemies and friends of weakness at a time when strength is necessary. But fortunately we do not face the option simply of surrendering the country or remaining as the ugly occupier. A middle course is possible. It is the one suggested above. This course would not be emotionally as satisfying as the Bush administration hopes but neither would it be as emotionally devastating as a precipitous withdrawal.

It is certainly possible that ten or twenty years from now a decentralized Iraq would breakup into three separate states, leading to mischief and new problems. But it is folly to remain on the course we are on. Occupation will never work owing to the natural resistance of Iraqis to control by an outside power, even an outside power convinced of its own good intentions. The Bush administration is gambling that the occupation will be tolerated long enough to establish homegrown institutions capable of providing security and democracy. A fine dream, but events would suggest that Iraqis will not wait patiently as we remake their country. And the longer we remain in charge, the more frustrated they will become, providing Saddam supporters and religious extremists innumerable opportunities to cause trouble.

Americans do not like ambiguous endings. But we had better learn to live with them. Powerful as we are we are not powerful enough to remake the world in our own image, as the Founding Fathers so clearly saw 200 years ago.

One would have thought that after Vietnam we had learned this lesson. But apparently we have not. That is a terribly depressing conclusion but an inescapable one.

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Jesse Lamovsky - 9/7/2003

You would be correct.

Josh Greenland - 9/7/2003

"3.) It would be an admission of failure in Iraq. The minute an occupying country starts crying "we need more troops!", that's it.[...] Time to pack up and go home, right there."

If you think my use of ellipses here is fair, Jesse, then are you saying that we should leave Iraq now?

Josh Greenland - 9/7/2003

I hope you're right.

James Jefferson - 9/5/2003

It should be entirely possible to make your points, Mr. Piper, including the very valid point about ingrained biases at HNN, without getting into nitpicking debates about what is or is not "civil". A certain amount of leeway in the hands of an editor is, after all, an inherent aspect of "editing". Having seen a large number of your posts recently, I would characterize the editor's handling of them as tolerant. Those of us with complaints about his bias or lack of attention to bias do not appreciate having to be associated with your unnecessary rudeness. He has written a fairly balanced and thoughtful piece here, why not give your temper a rest and contribute something constructive to the discussion instead ?

R. Piper - 9/4/2003

This comment has been deleted for its uncivil tone. Mr. Piper will not be permitted to post again on HNN.

Peter Brown - 9/4/2003

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy. See

cassandra - 9/4/2003

France: Basques in the southwest, German-speaking Alsatians in Alsace-Lorraine, Latin-French, plus Algerians and North Africans in the last 30 years, and Corsicans.
Malta: Carthaginians, Pheonicians and Italians.
Italy: French-speaking Swiss in the north, Albanian-Italians in the south, Sicilians.
South Africa: Boers, English, natives including Zulu, and Indians (remember Gandhi?).
Finland: Finns, Swedes, Roma, Tatar, Germans.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/4/2003

Actually, a lot of what you interpret as signs of a long-term committment I see as evidence of preparation for a precipitous retreat. I think it highly unlikely that this administration is serious about keeping large numbers of US troops in Iraq for over two years: this is laying the groundwork for "exceeding expectations" when they announce an "early" withdrawl in time for the elections next year.

They are desperate to bring in UN and other international groups (though they should have provided better security for them) to take on as many functions as possible (at least those Halliburton doesn't profit from). And even this administration of millionaires has to have a little sticker shock at the cost of this operation and the extent to which it is absorbing our capacity to operate in other theaters. If they are at all serious about pursuing an agenda beyond Iraq, they need to draw back and soon, or convince the world that they are not overextended.

Military bases in Iraq would be a great thing from the geopolitical standpoint, but they can get almost the same effect with much less risk and cost in Eastern Europe, etc., so they backed off that pretty quickly.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/4/2003

This war is on shaky enough ground in the polls as it is, and Mr. Tucker wants to bring back the draft? Ain't gonna happen. Here are a few of my more-or-less educated guesses as to why:

1.) A country can't fight an imperial war of conquest with a conscripted army. For work like this, the neocons are going on the model of Empire-era Britain: a crack, professional, flexible force that goes anywhere, does anything, and keeps its mouth shut. A draftee army asks, "Why on earth are we here?". That's the last question Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz want to hear.

2.) It would mean political suicide for the Bush Administration, pure and simple. The American people will not go for a draft. Besides, on May 1 Bush stood under a banner that said "Mission Accomplished", and for all intents and purposes announced that the war was won. After all that, you think this guy wants to call for a draft, a draft for the war he said was already wrapped up? Uh-uh. This Administration, painted into a corner by overstretch and its own cocksure pronouncements, may have to gut it out with 150,000 troops trying to hold down a population of 25 million people.

3.) It would be an admission of failure in Iraq. The minute an occupying country starts crying "we need more troops!", that's it. Whatever the occupying country has tried to do, "stablize the country", "install democracy", whatever, is already dead on arrival. Sending more soldiers in will send American casualties sky-rocketing, enormously expand the scale of ruin and destruction, and kill a lot more Iraqi civilians, but it won't affect the inevitable outcome- our getting the hell out. Time to pack up and go home, right there. It was true for the French in Algeria, for the U.S. in Vietnam, for the Soviets in Afghanistan, and so on...

Not to mention that a military draft is slavery, and we still live in a free republic (I think).

Jake Lee - 9/4/2003

".and women, currently not required to register for the Selective Service, too?"

Maybe, but I doubt there will be a draft of either men or women anytime soon. Volunteers and mercenaries are much more suitable for throwing into other peoples' wars. Of course, this could change if the U.S. were to suffer repeated attacks on its own soil. The Bush Administration's proven talent in fostering anti-American animosities around the world increase the probabilities of such attacks, but, as the Bush boys are all too aware, it is some subsequent administration that is more likely to have to deal with the consequences of their blunders today.

A general military draft has to be just about the last thing either Bush or any of his Democratic challengers would want to propose going into the 2004 election campaigns. Then you'd REALLY encounter historical "parallels", from re-enactments of draft card burnings to re-runs of "Born on the 4th of July".

cassandra - 9/3/2003

It's not productive to revive the causes of the Persian Gulf War and old border disputes, but I would like to note that Saddam started making those charges that Kuwait was slant-drilling his oil fields because George HW Bush had been an official of Zapata Oil at the time Zapata did some drilling in Kuwait. The slant-drilling charges Saddam made have never been proven, as far as I know, although we are now in a position to know for sure and probably wouldn't allow Kuwait to continue stealing Iraq's oil if that was still happening.
If you think it through, Saddam's charge that doesn't make much economic sense since Kuwait has vast untapped oil reserves in its own fields (which Saddam later set afire), and tiny vulnerable Kuwait had no particular reason to be so provocative as to try to steal oil from a neighbor that once boasted the world's 4th largest army. I am told from oil industry interests that there is evidence that Saddam was slant-drilling into Kuwait. It has always struck me as being like Hitler's efforts to stir up a border invasion from Poland to justify his invasion in 1939 _ quite clever since the elder Bush's position in Zapata added to the intrigue. You can still read about all this on the Internet. I sort of miss this artful aspect of Saddam's thuggishness.
Iraq's interest in slant-drilling into Kuwait, on the other hand, seems to have some reason. Iraq's southern oil fields are older and many are played out by now, as I think we've found out in the last three months because there's less talk about using Iraq's oil revenues to rebuild the country, and the more about using ours.

cassandra - 9/3/2003

..and women, currently not required to register for the Selective Service, too?

George Orwool - 9/3/2003

There is a slight hitch with shoving the Iraq problem onto the soldiers of America's 18-30 year olds. They, and the rest of the country, were resolutely promised that Iraqis would shower Americans with flowers once we marched into Baghdad, nuclear threats would then fall like dominos from Teheran to Islamabad to Pyongyang, and the troops would be back in a jiffy to enjoy lower taxes and plenty of wholesome jobs converting schools to prisons, clear-cutting the last vestiges of publicly-owned old growth forests, etc..

If there is to be a draft let it start with the shipping of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the rest of that gang of broken-promisers to Iraq. Let them, like Teddy Roosevelt, actually fight in the war they maneuvered us into.

Josh Greenland - 9/3/2003

I don't see why the anti-war child of old hippies or the cynical kid from a poor neighborhood should have to serve in a war they hate.

One alternative to the draft is to expand the "poverty draft" by lowering induction standards of all types.

Another is a campaign by Iraq war supporters to get them and their children to volunteer to fight this war. I see a lot of posting from Americans who are quite happy to sit safely on the sidelines and let someone else do the fighting. If the hawks in the population really believe in the war, then THEY should fight it! And if no one volunteers, than the people have spoken.

If we DO have the general draft (not just the recently-announced possible near-future draft of medical people) then all education exemptions beyond high school and those for most occupations and for all levels of employment (corporate board members) should be ELIMINATED. No more special breaks for educated, affluent or rich folks. And we'll see how long the war continues after the first draft notices are received.

Josh Greenland - 9/3/2003

"...That is precisely what Bush/Blair are trying to do: pull out and shift the responsibility to international and "homegrown" Iraqi institutions."

I see no sign of that from the Bush admin. His administration and military shills tell us our soldiers will be in Iraq for at least two years (meaning at least through the Nov `04 election, and longer if Bush is reelected). The Bushies aren't working for a complete replacement of the US & UK by foreign troops, but just for enough help to lower the stress on their militaries, their monetary costs, and their casualties. Bush & Co don't give any indication that they want to give up control in Iraq, or leave soon. Remember the administration and military talk a few months ago of the US military bases that would stay in Iraq longterm?

C. Carlton Tucker - 9/3/2003

If there's no out, then we have no choice but to finish this war we are in. Congress voted in favor of the use of force, so there is a popular vote for this course of action in our republic. We're not going to get any help. The world is telling us: you broke it, you bought it.
Now the immediate problem is the lack of manpower. So I suggest we bring back the draft, just as Rep. Charles Rangel wisely proposed last year. There are 14 million men aged 20 to 26 in the pool to draw from held in Selective Service files. There are only 23 million Iraqis. You do the math. We can decide the issue of a federation or confederation or a constitutional monarchy after the dust clears. We might even be able to get the new Iraqi government to pay scholarships to draftees for the year's college time they lost fighting for their country in Iraq.

editor - 9/3/2003

As my article is not a blueprint for the future I did not seek to tell policymakers how to divide Iraq or how to divie up the oil resources. These are questions best left to negotiation.

However the matter would be resolved a deal would have to be struck involving 2 related matters: Iraq's liabilities and its assets. I.e.: Iraq's national debt, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and Iraq's oil.

I see in this linkage the possibility of a grand compromise. Those who make off with the lion's share of the oil supplies would also have to accept responsibility for paying down the national debt.

An iconclast might suggest that the region with the least oil might actually be the best off. Instead of pumping oil, which tends in all nations of the Middle East to lead to oligarchy, the people could develop an economy based on technology, education and industry.

The assumption that oil is a blessing is questionable. As others have pointed out, it has often been a curse.

Peter Brown - 9/3/2003

I can certainly get three ethnicities out of South Africa, and know for a fact there are much more than that in Italy. Probably wouldn't have difficulty drawing three out of France or the Czech Republic, too.

J. Bartlett - 9/3/2003

" one in power is listening" ??

Your usual perceptiveness went on long-distance holiday here, Gus.

Walking away and leaving a mess behind is THE great tradition of modern U.S. foreign policy.

Practically the ONLY thing Bush HAS listened to, other than his pollsters and spin doctors, is the voice of regret, from Daddy and his recycled cabinet, about not finishing the job properly in 1991.

No, we are stuck. We have to stay in now. Sending in forces to take out Saddam was probably inevitable anyway. But you can blame Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, Daschle, and Hillary Clinton, et. al. for giving the patently incompetent and hypocritical Bush Jr. Administration chickenhawks carte blanche to blow America's international reputation to pieces in the process of their arrogant unilateral attempt to have accomplished something to brag about for the 2004 campaign.

Edgar Fendant - 9/3/2003

Switzerland is and always has been a confederation, not a federation. It has many federal aspects, a federal assembly for instance, but is considerably more decentralized than almost any other modern state I can think of. Thus even Jesse's one acknowledged exception is not a viable precedent, and for a whole host of other reasons in addition to the structure of governmental authority.

This whole discussion underscores the reality, which Mr. Shenkman now seems to appreciate, that searching for historical precedents for Iraq will not make even a slight dent in the enormity of the task ahead, which has, however, been made significantly more difficult by the clumsy and short-sighted approach of those who thrust it upon America.

Albert Madison - 9/3/2003

So far, the sacrifice and toil of American soldiers in Iraq has been directed and dedicated to the on-the-job training of neophyte nation-builders in the Bush Administration.

The best thing that could happen now would be for George W. Bush to apologize:

1) to Iraqis, for his father's refusal to support the uprising against Saddam in 1991, when there was a real international coalition in place to deliver such support, and for his party's support of Saddam in the 1980s and ignoring of him in the 1990s

2) to Germany and France and people around the world for the arrogant insults hurled at them in the run up to the recent ill-planned invasion and even more ill-planned occupation

3) last, but not least, to the American people for being asleep at the switch on Sept 11, 2001 and for the deliberate deceptions regarding Saddam's chemical and nuclear arsenal before Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With genuine contrition along such lines, there might be hope for a viable reconstruction of Iraq after all. The skill and dedication of American soldiers should be placed at the disposal of a legitimate United Nations political and military occupation, and, with full cooperation and sincere attention to all relevant Iraq groups, something like the federation proposal on the table here might have a reasonable chance of success.

While we're in the wish list department, a pledge for the President not to accept any campaign donations from Haliburton or any other company profiting from the Iraq occupation would be an welcome step, rudimentary for any genuine public servant perhaps, but impressive coming from this one.

P.S. to Mr. Bush: APOLOGIZE

David R. Applebaum - 9/3/2003

A Plan for Iraq

The "change" in Bush Administration Iraq policy is superficial and insufficient. Efforts to put the velvet glove of United Nations over the iron fist of United States military force is three months too late. Like the glove in the famous California trial, it no longer fits the fingers and hand that it might have kept warm. What is needed is a new and different approach to the restoration of peace to the peoples of Iraq. What is needed is action to stop the senseless deaths and casualties of Iraqis and Americans. The Balkanization of Iraq will be a disaster. The future of Iraq cannot and should not be mapped outside the country

There are three (3) actions required for increasing the safety and security of the Iraqi people and US soldiers. These actions are essential if we hope to break the spiraling cycle of terror and counter-terror associated with the American occupation.

First, it is necessary to insure complete compliance with Article 4 of the Geneva Convention. Compliance with Geneva will bring an end to the cultural assaults and criminal conduct that terrorizes and radicalizes Iraqis. Giving justice to those who suffered is the only alternative to creating men and women who seek vengeance.

Second, it is necessary to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Our coalition partners are already under ICC jurisdiction. The US needs to accept the moral and legal (fiduciary) obligations and due process guarantees of international law. With ICC control, we can transform the "Gazaesque" and "Belfastlike" patterns of violence and vengeance. The rule of law is superior to the rule of the gun.

Third, it is essential to begin the orderly and complete withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Iraq. As Iraqi's are empowered to review, control, and shape the actions of the occupiers, they will be able to create the infrastructure needed to nurture justice in their day to day lives.

As we take these actions, the United States must also guarantee that it will fulfill the obligations of occupation spelled out in the Geneva Conventions. The end of occupation will not succeed if we fail to acknowledge the part we played - along with the old regime - in the twelve years of war that ravaged Iraqi.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/3/2003

I'm not simply talking about federated republics. I'm talking about countries that contain three or more ethnicities. Other than Switzerland, which I've previously named, and perhaps Malaysia, none of this type of polity managed to get through the century without experiencing some sort of ethnic-based civil strife.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/3/2003

The Russian Federation? What about Chechnya?

Peter Brown - 9/3/2003

Doubt if either Australia or Canada see it quite that way. But here are some more federal republics that should satisfy the original request for evidence of republics other than Switzerland that stayed in tact in the 20th Century:
Ireland, Italy, Finland, Greece, Portugal, France, Malta, Austria (quasi federal republic), Czech Republic, Iceland, and South Africa. Germany might be considered one as well, with obvious historical caveats.

Josh Narins - 9/3/2003

To the best of my knowledge, these are the only uncensored Iraqi voices around, I listen to them.

The ultimate Salam Pax (Dear Raed;) post being from the day the war started, May 21, 2002.

please stop sending emails asking if I were for real, don't belive it? then don't read it.
I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own.
2 more hours untill the B52's get to Iraq.

Josh Narins - 9/3/2003

Canada and Australia are still, both, Constitutional Monarchies, and not Federations as I think of them (Federal Republics).

Josh Narins - 9/3/2003


The allegations before the first Persian Gulf War, allegations Saddam had been making for years before the international community, and being consistently ignored, was that Kuwaitis were slant drilling and stealing Iraqi oil.

The map is just the best I knew about. I would be glad to see each oil field on it "greyed out" to the extent the field is depleted.

Thanks for the info.

Gus Moner - 9/3/2003

Indeed it’s a conundrum. Stay longer and get burnt, stay less and get burnt. It all boils down to having gone in without the slightest clue of what to expect, having only classic military battle plans for a battle that was not to be, and preparing only military contingencies. The only non-military plan was to save the oil infrastructure. The Iraqis repeatedly said they’d draw in the US forces and trap them in a guerrilla type war, and by George, they’ve done it. It remains to be seen if they are successful, but why no one prepared for the warnings they were receiving is frankly criminal.

Failing to have built a coalition before the war, and trying desperately to bring one together now is humbling experience for this group of peacocks in DC, and a clear admission of the error of their ways. They violated the UN Charter and now turn to the UN for cover. Frankly, I doubt anyone will buy into this gasping manoeuvre. The US went in alone, and will have to sort through it alone. Where are the Aussies now?

It’s a pity the price is being paid in US/UK soldier’s blood, whilst their fearless and illuminated leaders sit behind their desks, safe and sound, sorting through the debris they have created. All pronouncements mention the steady progress being made. Will anyone bring these criminal leaders to justice? When the Nazis started a war, the victors brought some of them to trial. Who’ll try Bush and Blair?

Peter Brown - 9/3/2003

Also Australia, which celebrated its centeniary as a federation in 2001, although not polyglot. Could throw in Russian Federation, which survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is polyglot.

Gus Moner - 9/3/2003

The beauty of this concept is its logic and simplicity. It's a pity no one in power is listening.

Gus Moner - 9/3/2003

The ‘functioning democracy’ you mention in the north of Iraq is the typical tribal council beehive. It is functioning, as it has for millennia, even as it did under the previous regime, from which autonomy was obtained after bitter internecine Kurdish fighting and even a three-way mini war with the former Baghdad regime. To go so far as to call it a functioning democracy I can’t agree with, although I believe it qualifies as your ‘good enough’.

The difference is they aren’t rebelling against a central regime now; the chaos there, admittedly less extreme than I described in general (and I should have taken the time to make the distinction, my apologies), is breaking out from interethnic violence amongst Turkmen, Kurds and Christians as well as various unidentified cells or elements against the occupation, attacking infrastructure. The backdrop to it all is the vast oil wealth of the region, into which the US oilmen are now trying to muscle in by playing off factions. Stay tuned.

You have made a good point, in general, that not all areas are in the same state. That said, your idyllic-bucolic description of the south as being in ‘pretty good shape’ is, based on information readily available, simply surreal. The shortages, chaos, violence, fear (women are disappearing at an alarming rate) and lack of services are causing attacks on occupying Brits and increased polarisation all adding up to calls for an uprising. Is that being in ‘pretty good shape’?

As for the “functional structures” you allude to, these already exist in Iraqi culture in general and in all their tribal structures. We are trying to re-invent their wheel. Leave them be, help set up a government of THEIR choosing, establishing the structures of law and order, and let them be. You are right, “the Iraqi people should be entirely capable of changing whatever constitutions, laws or institutions we leave in place”, so let’s do it. Let’s quit dawdling and set them up.

They are educated enough and have a long enough history as to be able to get a government up and running in 4-8 months, and we have already wasted 4 in merely setting up an advisory council to name 25 ministers. The urgency of the situation escapes the oilmen and their military reps running the invasion and occupation.

Finally, although I hope to be proven wrong, I fear the Afghani example is turning out to be far short of ‘good enough’. Here are recent articles by three different scholars and one from the AP. Any of these are troubling enough; all together one obtains the impression of neglect, blunders and impending doom.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/3/2003

Not intentionally, I realize. But that is precisely what Bush/Blair are trying to do: pull out and shift the responsibility to international and "homegrown" Iraqi institutions.

But it's a bit of a catch-22: if we stay until things are properly stabilized, then we're building a US puppet regime and imposing our will/values/priorities on the hapless Iraqis. If we leave too early, then we're pulling out before our responsibility to the hapless Iraqis is discharged. There was a way out of this trap, but it involved building a meaningful coalition *before* the war and having some substantive contingency plans. Now Bush/Blair have gotten their hand stuck in the monkey trap and it's a no-win situation.

Josh Greenland - 9/2/2003

If we were serious about letting the Iraqis decide, the US would pull out of Iraq as soon as possible and funnel in aid through international agencies that the Iraqis are willing to work with.

Josh Greenland - 9/2/2003

"In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of have-nots who realize that giving more autonomy to the Kurds means they won't be able to sustain their current (dismal) standard of living, and won't let it happen."

Actually, the Kurds might quite happy to be in a federation with the Arabs to the south of them, so that they might benefit from a mostly Arab army that could dissuade Turkey from invading the Kurdish north.

editor - 9/2/2003

For the record: I supported the war in Afghanistan. I opposed the war in Iraq. Therefore, I hardly can be called an "interventionist."

Jonathan Dresner - 9/2/2003

Mr. Moner,

Actually, the pitiful description you present is only accurate for portions of the country, particularly the Sunni central areas that Shenkman admits are in a problematic state. There is a functioning democracy in the north, with pretty stable infrastructure, and the south is in pretty decent shape and reasonably stable.

You're right that the humanitarian situation needs to be addressed first, and you're right that the ultimate shape of whatever succeeds US/UK occupation needs to be determined by Iraqi needs and desires. But we're not discussing the ultimate end, we're discussing functional structures which could clarify, simplify and ultimately help the situation. Once occupation ends, the Iraqi people should be entirely capable of changing whatever constitutions, laws or institutions we leave in place.

I share your concerns about the Afghani example, but at some point the "good enough" has to take precedence over "perfect"

Gus Moner - 9/2/2003

The article and each and every comment thereafter seem to miss the central point. It’s not what we want, stupid. It’s what do the Iraqis want? It’s not what we think will work best, for not one administrative or military solution applied from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire on has proven even close to adequate, indeed each subsequent solution has but aggravated an earlier blunder. Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and now Iraq and let’s not forget Afghanistan where that same federalist formula has left the western installed leader master of some 140 km2 in Kabul. The rest are independently run tribal fiefdoms.

What makes any of us think we have a clue as to what should happen in Iraq? Is it not time we begin with the first tenet of ‘democracy’ allowing the Iraqi people decide their own governance and institutional structures?

What has come over us that we now feel we are divinely, morally or historically tasked, empowered and enlightened to establish this or that system in Iraq?

We’re sitting as far as 10,000 kilometres and eons away from that woe-begotten land. We know little of their culture, customs, and desires and soldiers cannot even communicate with their Iraqi interlocutors, suspects or not, due to the inexplicable absence of translators.

Their people are suffering an occupation by what they consider infidel barbarians who have dispensed with their already meagre basic services; their nation is a chaotic no-man’s-land where everyone is armed and routine life activities entail daily risk to life and limb.

Food rots in homes from lack of electricity, the entire army is furloughed and unemployed, as are millions of other former workers in a myriad of industries. The economy is at a standstill except for food and petrol. The sewerage does not function, the entire social structure has collapsed, and millions have been plunged into indignity and poverty. Any semblance of governance has shattered.

Now, having accomplished all this in a mere 120 days, we’re going to set up their brand-spanking new democracy, in a federal state no less, and argue over who’ll get the oil. What we doing, playing Risk or Monopoly? Please, come back to Earth.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/2/2003

My take on this is that the "Federation" ala Shenkman, would be an interim phase on a gradual road towards a peaceful breakup. A bit like Yugoslavia, leaving out the years 1991-99, or like Czechoslovakia (another exception to Lamovsky's generally valid caution).

The fly in the ointment remains America's credibility, not great in that part of the world in recent decades, and now shredded further at the hands of the arrogant, incompetent and short-sighted neo-cons.

First, under Reagan, we love Saddam because he fights Khomeini, then under Bush I we hate Saddam because he threatens "our" oil, but we want a kinder, gentler dictator, and under Clinton do nothing constructive to further that feeble and dubious goal, then under Bush II, we loudly and unpersuasively proclaim that we will turn Iraq overnight into a giant New England town meeting democracy using high tech weaponry funded by the hocus pocus of perpetual motion tax cuts, and while telling the UN to go to blow itself up.

And now ? Federation Über Alles ?

We need a more informed, more long-range, and above all, less pitifully inconsistent foreign policy. A little more cooperation and humility wouldn't hurt either, along with a president who isn't lying when he says he wants a humble foreign policy, and with politicians willing to apologize for their mistakes instead of launching wars to cover them up.

cassandra - 9/2/2003

One federation that didn't fall apart in the 20th Century: Canada.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/2/2003

Mr. Shenkman is free to name just one poly-ethnic federation, other than Switzerland, that didn't dissolve into civil war during the 20th century. And Switzerland is a voluntary polity that dates back over seven hundred years. Yet here is Mr. Shenkman floating the brilliant idea that a new Lebanon should be created by American guns. This is anything but a way out. Generously presupposing that we can create this federation and get out, when the meltdown takes place "ten or twenty years from now", you can believe interventionists like Mr. Shenkman will be giving reasons why we're "obligated" to go back in and save the rickety structure we built.

cassandra - 9/2/2003

The map doesn't reflect the fact that the older oil wells are in the south, and are almost depleted, which is why Saddam was using slant-drilling techniques to try and tap into neighboring Kuwait's oil fields before the 1991 war. The map has another shortcoming, since there hasn't been much modern exploration of Iraq's reserves since the 1981 Iran-Iraq war erupted. Some have suggested those northeastern fields are much vaster in reserves than that map suggests.

cassandra - 9/2/2003

If I'm living in the third of Iraq that has all the oil revenues and oil reserves, why on earth would it be in my interests to see the money coming from under my land go to these other people not so similarly blessed? There are certainly enough ethnic and religious differences for demagogues to stir up a Quebec-style separatist movement to split off from the Federation of Iraq, or stir up sufficient domestic turmoil that neighboring Turkey would be very interested in sending in troops on a pretext.
P.S. All the education and infrastructure investments Tito made in trying to make a unified Yugoslavia didn't stop that country from splitting up on largely religious grounds. For example, parts of the old Yugo car were made in differing republics so the assembled vehicle could claim to be a national product, and the communists kept many uneconomical projects going including a Sarajevo aluminum smelter for nationalist reasons.
What happened to Yugoslavia, which the United States helped create after WW1, is surely evidence that trying to create a federation of equal states doesn't work when you have such strong religious/cultural/ethnic differences from republic to republic inside the new "country."
I also don't believe you can make a federation that works by splitting the country along ethnic lines work if it that splitting also divides the country into populations of haves, and have-nots. In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of have-nots who realize that giving more autonomy to the Kurds means they won't be able to sustain their current (dismal) standard of living, and won't let it happen.

Josh Narins - 9/2/2003

The Kurds do have access to lots of it.

But this map shows it is much more well distributed throughout the country than that.

75% of the oil was under the previous "No-Fly" zones, established and maintained "extra-legally" by the US/UK for the last 12 years.

Josh Narins - 9/2/2003

I was claiming that we could avoid the war with Iraq entirely by carving up Iraq without Saddam's consent (necessarily).

He had no air presence in the North or the South. A northern "Kurdistan" (or 2 Kurdish nations) and a southern "Fertile Crescent" could have been removed from his control WITHOUT leaving the 'No-Fly' Zones.

The Kurds, I argued, had suffered more than even the Jews, over the last 100 years, and establishing a Federal Shi'a state (a Mahometan (Musselman's) Republic a la Turkey) could establish, for the world to know, that we have no problem with Islam, just the "Church" control over Republican Iran.

I even had the basics of a military strategy worked out, and had drawn up proposed borders, and variations on those borders which might also make sense.

75% of the oil would have been in the new nations.
25% of the previous WMD facilities would have been.
All of the towns he used to oppress (12 years ago or more) were there.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/2/2003

The oil revenues should be controlled by whatever central authority oversees the Federation of Iraq, to be used for the benefit of all three groups (infrastructure, education) and the integration of Iraq so that federation doesn't result in a Yugoslavian style breakup.

cassandra - 9/2/2003

p.s. How about that other misplaced word? Monarchy.
Think strongman if you want a nice word, dictator if you don't. It's the only thing that's going to keep the lid from really blowing.

cassandra - 9/2/2003

Splitting up Iraq may superficially be a damn good idea, but which one of the three gets the oil? The Kurds and Caldean Christians currently have the territory the oil fields are located. That's certainly going to look great in the Muslim world, which already believes the U.S. is leading a crusade to turn Middle East oil over to the Christians. I'm sure the Shiites in the south, who don't have any oil, will have some feelings also about this plan. The Sunnis were all part of Saddam's regime, so maybe there's an argument they deserve to live in desert poverty.

Brad Matthews - 9/1/2003

I've been waiting to see this idea finally bubble up. It looks both intriguing and worthy of closer consideration, especially along side of the many laughably bizarre analogies to Germany and Japan and, perhaps most preposterously, the post-1865 U.S. South. It is really is quite well formulated and Mr. Shenkman might just as well have come out with it straight away instead of dredging up and posting all the other absurdities first.

My problem is: what do we say to the Iraqi families who were brutalized, tortured, driven from their homes, and had family members murdered, when they tried in 1991 to achieve very much this sort of federation, and the U.S. stood aside to let Saddam crush it ?

Nixon's "peace with honor" took four years of mostly futile conflict to achieve. Far more important to "redeeming" America after Vietnam was the image of thousands of Americans taking to the streets (and the ballot boxes) to force a reversal of the failed foreign intervention that had become a great national disgrace.

No policy for Iraq can really be expected to succeed for the long term, in the clear sense of convincingly inhibiting the creation of future Saddams in that part of the world, unless and until the American people rise up and reclaim their hijacked foreign policy. Until the Republicans (and Democrats) in the U.S. Congress who gave the blank check for this hypocritical and bungled war of conquest own up to their folly, clever geopolitical strategies (and this tripartite federation does admittedly have much to recommend it) are unlikely to suffice for restoration of America's tarnished image of itself or squandered reputation in the world.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/1/2003

Another advantage of an Iraqi Federation is that self-rule in the north and south would be much closer to what we promised those groups than the restablishment of a dominant central authority. The Kurds in particular have earned their chance at self-rule; Turkish objections should be handled dismissively and firmly. Allowing a Shi'a entity in the south might go a long way to giving us a chance of developing a positive relationship with other Shi'a states and groups.