Blogs > Cliopatria > Reidar Visser: Review of Peter Galbraith’s Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Oct 19, 2008 3:46 pm

Reidar Visser: Review of Peter Galbraith’s Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

[Reidar Visser is editor of the Iraq website and author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq and An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?]

The last time Peter Galbraith wrote a book about Iraq, the title summed up the problems of the entire volume: based on his own, highly idiosyncratic reading of Iraqi history, Galbraith prematurely announced “The End of Iraq”. However, in his new book on Iraq, the title is nothing short of brilliant: “Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies”. That is by all accounts a crisp summary of some of the main problems that have afflicted US policy in Iraq ever since 2003. So does it mean that Galbraith’s latest offering is an improvement on his previous one?

The beginning of the book is a little ominous. Included in the front matter is a page titled “Iraq’s Ethnic and Sectarian Divisions”. In the description of the “Shiite South”, Galbraith comments that “Iraq’s Council of Representatives has enacted a law permitting Iraq’s nine southern Governorates to form a single Shiite Region [capitalization as per the original] with the same powers as Kurdistan”. There is nothing wrong in the statement as such. It’s just that the law Galbraith refers to also happens to permit more than 100 other federalization scenarios. Basra can become a region in its own right with the other governorates remaining governorates; Maysan can become a region in its own right; Basra and Maysan together may become a region, and so on and so forth. None of these scenarios is mentioned by Galbraith and this is quite typical of his approach: he leaves out information he does not like and instead uses those few bits and pieces that appeal to him. The result is an outdated fantasy image of what politics in Iraq is like.

Still, there are some positive developments in “Unintended Consequences”. First and foremost, Galbraith has by and large abandoned his earlier argument that Iraq was doomed to fail as a state because of its history. He even admits (on p. 113) that “Arabs of a certain generation and class remember a time when it never mattered who was a Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd. Iraqis lived together, friendships crossed ethnic and sectarian lines, groups intermarried, and, they recall, no one knew or cared who was a Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd.” With the exception of the absurd attempt on p. 150 to define Faysal I as a “Sunni dictator” – many of Faysal’s greatest admirers were in fact Shiites, and Shiite tribal leaders of Najaf had called for a Sunni prince of Hijaz to become Iraqi king as early as in 1919 – there are few other references to early twentieth-century history in the book. Also, Galbraith limits his discussion of the Iraqi constitution to a few passages, although some of the points he makes on this subject remain highly problematic: on p. 32 Galbraith exaggerates the role of the federal “guards of the region” – here they have become regular “armies”! – and on the same page he once more overlooks the fact that even though article 115 gives priority to regional law in areas outside the exclusive competency of the central government, this legislation also needs to be in accordance with the Iraqi constitution and will be subject to the review of the Iraqi constitutional court.

This time around, Galbraith spends more time on regional issues, focusing on how US policies in Iraq have empowered Iran and alienated Turkey at the same time. While Galbraith is mistaken when he abruptly asserts on p. 69 that “decades of oppression have made their religious identity more important to Iraqi Shiites than their Arab ethnic identity”, he is right in pointing out (p. 84, pp. 111–112, p. 139) that some of the Shiites in Iraq’s government have extremely close ties to Iran, and that it is likely that Iran is more interested in a long-term relationship with the Shiite Islamists in power than with Muqtada al-Sadr. This is where the title of the book is particularly appropriate: Iran has vastly increased its regional power through the systematic promotion by the Bush administration of a small minority of pro-Iranian Islamists among the Iraqi Shiites. But especially because Galbraith clearly realises the geopolitical implications of this (a friendly alliance of Shiite rulers in Iraq and Iran would control combined oil reserves similar in scale to those of Saudi Arabia, p. 69), his policy proposal – unconditional withdrawal from southern Iraq without doing anything for those millions of Shiites who do not fancy the idea of Iranian overlordship (p. 131) – seems defeatist in the extreme. The chapter on Turkey, for its part, is relatively balanced, except that when Galbraith describes the Turkmens of Iraq as “ethnic Turks who were left behind when the Ottoman Empire collapsed [italics added]” he reveals his bias towards an ethno-sectarian reading of Iraqi history. In fact, the Turkmens had been in Iraq for centuries and were a key element in the state bureaucracy from Basra in the south to Kurdistan. So why should they have to go anywhere even if the Ottoman pashas left?

The timely focus on the wider regional environment notwithstanding, several problems still remain in Galbraith’s descriptions of Iraq itself south of Kurdistan. On p. 7 he maintains that “the Shiites are moving” to “form their own region”. The truth is that in 2006, one small segment of the Shiite coalition which accounts for around 10% of the seats in the parliament – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISCI (this is what they call themselves; Galbraith calls them SIIC) – tentatively floated this idea. However, since 2007 they have scaled back their rhetoric in favour of this scenario quite dramatically, not least because the idea was discredited among Iraqis of all sects due to its striking similarity with the wildly unpopular “soft partition” initiatives propagated by various US politicians (such as Galbraith himself, as well as Joe Biden). Then, on p. 25, Galbraith maintains that the creation of sectarian enclaves in Baghdad was a continuous process from 2003; it makes far more sense to interpret these patterns of urban displacement as a temporary surge in sectarian violence from late 2005 to early 2007. More generally, he hammers on about a “civil war” (p. 45) and even a “religious war” (p. 17) as if we were still in 2006. And then there is the author’s often-repeated argument that the governing council of 2003 and Ahmad Chalabi in particular were actually well liked by the Iraqi people (pp. 48–61), with the decisive proof being the victory of the United Iraqi Alliance (where Chalabi ran as a candidate) in the January 2005 elections. Of course, a more specific indicator of Chalabi’s popularity came in the second election in December 2005 – when Chalabi ran on his own and obtained exactly 27,371 out of some 12,000,000 votes cast nationwide, or around 0.2 percent.

Problematic sectarian stereotypes and ideas about sectarian monoliths recur throughout the book. On p. 26 Galbraith states that the objective of the sharing law for oil is to “guarantee the Sunnis a share of Iraq’s oil revenue”. Few Iraqis think like this: they know that most of the oil in Iraq is in Basra anyway, where the local Shiite politicians are not particularly inclined to cooperate with Shiite politicians from central Iraq who historically have always tried to marginalise their co-religionists in the far south. Hence, to most Iraqis – both Shiites and Sunnis – it makes more sense to have a distribution formula strictly based on governorates and numbers of inhabitants, with no role at all for sectarian identity. And accordingly, the revenue-sharing law has never been a major problem in the negotiations over a package of oil-related legislations; the reason this process has taken time is the insistence by Galbraith’s Kurdish friends that federal regions should have the right to sign contracts with foreign companies for certain oil fields without reference to the central government in Baghdad. Similarly, on p. 26, Galbraith maintains that “the Sunnis want a more centralized state”. Had he studied the Shiite scene more carefully, he would have known that Sadrists, Fadila and Daawa (including the Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki himself) all stress the importance of not giving away too much power to the federal regions. In other words, the opposition to strong decentralisation is a joint Shiite–Sunni project (Basim al-Sharif of the Fadila party very recently used the fitting label “confederalists” for his opponents in the two Kurdish parties and ISCI). Again, on pp. 7–8 and on p. 38 and p. 66 Galbraith reiterates the erroneous notion that ISCI and Badr completely dominate the Iraqi security forces – in fact there is fierce intra-Shiite competition between Daawa and ISCI for control of this sector. On p. 116 he construes changes to the border between Karbala and Anbar governorates as a “Shiite” demand – the truth is that so far only a handful of pro-ISCI politicians have shown any interest in creating trouble over this.

In an improvement on his previous volume on Iraq, Galbraith does take note of certain cases of intra-sectarian disagreement. On p. 111 he concedes that the Sadrists are more Iraqi nationalist than ISCI, and on p. 115 he provides further details about competing Shiite visions of federalism, with the Fadila branch in Basra entertaining ambitions about Basra as a small-scale federal region of its own (on this they disagree with both ISCI and the central leadership of the Fadila party). But what Galbraith just cannot seem to fit into his analysis is the rapid formation of new fronts as parties locked in intra-sectarian conflicts coalesce to form cross-sectarian alliances. On p. 28, referring to the debate in the Iraqi parliament about the provincial powers law in February 2008, Galbraith states, “Iraq’s Shiite leaders opposed provincial elections”. He continues, “under US pressure, Iraq’s Council of Representatives passed the provincial elections law [sic; it was the provincial powers law; the elections law was passed in September] in February 2008. Far from being a step toward national reconciliation, the law’s consideration in the Iraqi parliament underscored the lack of trust among Iraq’s three communities.” This interpretation overlooks what is perhaps the single most significant development in Iraqi politics since 2006: the emergence of an inter-sectarian opposition that is able to put pressure on the government and indeed to defeat it in practical legislation. The reason the provincial powers law included a timetable for elections was precisely that Shiites and Sunnis from the Sadrists, Fadila, al-Hiwar al-Watani, al-Iraqiyya and others demanded its insertion, to the dismay of the two Kurdish parties and ISCI. In October 2006, these nationalist forces were unable to stop legislation on federalism, but with the provincial powers law in February 2008 they proved that the tide is turning in Iraq and that pro-federal sentiment is declining.

Towards the end of this short book, on p. 112, Galbraith’s juggling of his “three groups” finally falters, as he briefly declares the “Sunnis” to form the biggest community in Iraq. That is symptomatic of the conclusion of the book and the “solution” Galbraith proposes for Iraq (p. 134), which is basically identical to the one he suggested in 2006: a three-way partition, with an American drive to convince Sunnis about the virtues of federalism (he does not appear to realise that Washington would now need to convince most Shiites too). But so many of his arguments are now gone that “the end of soft partition” would have been an even more apt title for the book. While some of the preceding chapters come across as relatively reasonable sketches of developments in Iraqi politics, the only elements that are left to back up his main thesis are the occasional gusts of impromptu early twentieth-century essentialism that occur throughout the book: “The problem in Iraq is the depth of the divisions that exist in the country” (p. 27); “The divisions in Iraq run deep, which is why Iraqis cannot agree among themselves” (p. 110); “It makes no sense for Americans to speak of Iraqis when most of the population acts as Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites” (p. 115); “the central problem in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiites” (p. 132). Even Galbraith’s own limited recognition of intra-sectarian dynamics invalidates these assertions. The remarkable ambiguity of his argument was summed up even more forcefully in his recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal in support of Joe Biden (12 September 2008): “Mr. Senor is right to say that many Shiite and Sunni leaders have criticized the Biden plan. Their actions, however, tell a different story. Iraq’s parliament has already passed a law enabling Shiites and Sunnis to form their own regions, and the largest Shiite party is moving ahead with its project to make Iraq's nine southern governorships into a single Shiite region. Under Iraq's constitution, regions can override federal law and can even have their own militaries.” Thus, according to Galbraith, because the Iraqi politicians passed a certain law in rather chaotic circumstances and with the smallest possible of majorities in 2006, the more recent emergence of a strong anti-federal current counts for nothing.

Should Galbraith’s reiteration of old ideas give cause to concern? Surely, mainstream policy-making circles in DC must be aware that Galbraith’s ideas are hopelessly outdated and ill suited to an Iraqi reality where there is increasing cooperation across sectarian lines? The fact remains that both Galbraith and like-minded people such as Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer remain important voices in the Democratic Party, and in the newly-released “Obama–Biden plan for Iraq”, federalism plays a central role: “As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society – in and out of government – to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.” It is therefore critically important that a new president understands that while federalism is an important issue to Iraqis, most Iraqis want less federalism and not more federalism of the kind suggested by Galbraith and Biden. Finally, people of other nations may want to keep an eye on this: Galbraith concludes his book by enumerating other cases across the globe which he deems ripe for soft partitioning; Pakistan and Indonesia are among the countries where it seems likely he may want to go next.

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