Blogs > Cliopatria > Reidar Visser: Review of Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq (Simon & Schuster)

Jan 18, 2008 1:35 pm

Reidar Visser: Review of Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq (Simon & Schuster)

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the website which focuses on southern Iraq. He did his doctorate in Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford on the subject of separatist movements in southern Iraq and has recently published the book Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006).

The main message in Peter Galbraith’s recently published The End of Iraq is that Iraq is a non-viable polity well on its way to predestined disintegration. US policy in Iraq, Galbraith maintains, should be adjusted accordingly.

Galbraith is not the first author to write along such lines, but he may be one of the more important ones to do so. He has sympathizers in liberal and Democratic Party circles in the United States, and has written extensively on Iraq in such prestigious publications as the New York Review of Books. Galbraith’s latest offering runs to 260 pages and is thus the most voluminous contribution yet to a growing corpus of texts by partition-keen American intellectuals. On the back cover, Galbraith is touted as “the smartest and most devastating” of the critics of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies.

The first seven chapters of The End of Iraq deal with the historical background to the Iraq War in 2003, and the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Baathist regime.  Galbraith traces the development of US policy and interventions in the region, from the Iran–Iraq War via the 1991 Gulf War and through the subsequent decade of sanctions. These pages mostly relate to well-known general developments and do not present much new information about Iraq and US policy as such. Still, there is the occasional interesting anecdote based on insider knowledge. Predictably, perhaps, Galbraith’s strictures on the US track record in Iraq since 2003 are severe and at times verge on viciousness; they include stories about capable Arabists in the State Department allegedly being cold-shouldered because they were pessimistic about the prospects of democracy in Iraq (p. 95), as well as the charge that further marginalization of area experts took place after Paul Bremer’s arrival in Baghdad (p. 125). Also, the information about Galbraith’s personal experience in the region is interesting as such. Sometimes dismissed as a former diplomat who haphazardly projects his Balkan experiences onto Iraqi realities, Galbraith succeeds in demonstrating his long-standing ties to Iraq – although it also becomes clear that his Iraqi contacts follow a highly biased pattern, where Kurdish elites (plus Ahmad Chalabi and a few other secularists) seem to dominate.

Chapter 8, “Kurdistan,” is by far the most interesting part of the book – not primarily for what it says about that area, but for its blunt and autobiographical account of how a US intellectual became deeply engaged in fuelling Kurdish ideas about breaking ranks with the rest of Iraq. In considerable detail Galbraith explains how he personally fostered many of the specific Kurdish demands for federalism, including principles which in one form or another would later find their way into the current Iraqi constitution. (These include the residual powers of the regions in the federal system, the idea of the supremacy of local law over federal law, and the right of local authorities to manage future oil fields – all apparently drafted by Galbraith as far back as in the period August 2003–February 2004.) Galbraith provides an amazingly frank account of how he himself played a central role in framing the Kurdish elites’ demands on the center, even impelling them at certain junctures when he found them to have “conceptual problems” (p. 160). He sounds distinctly satisfied about the severe restrictions placed on the central government in the final constitution (p. 169, sarcastically declaring it the exclusive prerogative of the central government to ensure that “a meter in Basra is the same length as one in Arbil”), and he cheerfully recounts how he himself contributed to upholding the restraints on the center during the tense final stages of the charter negotiations (by warning off British officials who seemingly intended to raise alarms about the limited tax powers of the central government, p. 199, footnote).

It should be added that in all his eagerness to demonstrate the supposed triumph of centrifugal forces in Iraq – and his own personal role in bringing this about – Galbraith occasionally exaggerates the extent to which the central government got its wings clipped in the new Iraqi constitution of October 2005. In particular, he trivializes the role of the projected constitutional court (or the federal high court), which is charged with upholding the constitutionality of any laws passed in Iraq, including the provision that they must not contradict Islam. Galbraith claims (p. 169, and, in greater detail, pp. 198–200) that in agreeing to this constitutional court, the Kurds made sure that regional law was “exempted”. But it is difficult to see how this can square with article 90 of the Iraqi constitution [October 2005 version, the articles have since been renumbered], which unequivocally asserts that the federal high court is responsible for supervising the constitutionality of “laws and regulations in force”, as well as “interpreting the constitution.” No exemptions for regions are mentioned, and even though regional law is given preference over federal law in article 117, the Islamic imperative of article 2 (and, for that matter, also the even vaguer guarantee of respect for “democratic principles”) would still seem to apply universally, as article 117 covers only competency disputes between regional and federal law in cases where concurrent legislation in fact exists, and also explicitly asserts that regions must act within the parameters of the constitution. One would have expected at least some elaboration on this problematic and critical point, and, perhaps more importantly, a greater sense of deference towards the future constitutional court and the idea of judicial independence in the new Iraq as such: after all, it will be for this court, rather than for Galbraith – or any other non-Iraqi – ultimately to solve the dilemma of possible contradictions between Islamic and secular ideals in areas like Kurdistan and elsewhere in Iraq, and to interpret the constitutional procedures for handling this thorny field.(1)

It is on the basis of the pro-Kurdish, pro-partition views expressed in chapter 8 that Galbraith’s general reading of Iraqi history and society as well as some of the oddities in the book must be understood. Galbraith is at pains to render Iraq as an “artificial” and highly fissile construct. Indeed, he accuses his political opponents of “a misreading of Iraq’s modern history” (p. 206). But as soon as he moves beyond his particular area of expertise – the Kurdish north – the narrative becomes less convincing and the arguments more strained. For instance, Galbraith on two occasions reiterates the now widespread but highly erroneous notion that current ethno-religious divisions in Iraq strongly correlate to the old administrative organization of the Ottoman Empire: Mosul was supposedly “Kurdish”, Baghdad “Sunni”, and Basra “Shiite” (p. 7, and in a footnote on p. 100 where he repeats this image even while admitting the existence of what he portrays as enclave-like minorities of Sunni Arabs in Mosul and Shiite Arabs in the holy cities of Baghdad province).

In reality, however, Mosul was essentially a mixed-race province, whereas Baghdad, though home to a large Sunni community, was probably the largest Shiite province of the Ottoman Empire – with its borders extending as far south as today’s Muthanna governorate and with all the rural territory surrounding the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala solidly Shiite, Baghdad was actually far more of a Shiite point of gravity than was Basra (which politically was Sunni-dominated). This in turn means that there was never any such close fit between ethno-religious and administrative maps as that suggested by Galbraith, and that Iraq has in fact a far longer record of ethno-religious coexistence than he seems prepared to admit.

Galbraith’s “Iraq was just cobbled together” thesis is similarly trite and equally misleading: it is true that for some thirty years between the 1880s and 1914 there was administrative separation between Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, but before that there had been frequent intervals of administrative unity between some or all of these areas (especially Basra and Baghdad) – as was the case under the Ottomans and Georgian mamluk rule in the early nineteenth and eighteenth century as well as during long periods of the classical Islamic age (and even under a succession of Mongol rulers after 1258, if more flimsily so). Finally, on a more exotic note, on p. 219 Galbraith devotes a line to the long-overlooked Basra separatist movement of the 1920s – but his interpretation of the movement is misleading. In Galbraith’s view, the historical emergence of a Basra separatist movement proves that Shiite ambitions for separate statehood are a “natural” and “historical” thing; the snag here, however, is that the Basra bid for separation in the 1920s had nothing whatsoever to do with Shiism – it was ideologically non-sectarian and in terms of the background of its participants overwhelmingly dominated by Sunni merchants (many of Arabian origin), along with Christians and Jews. Only a few rich Shiite traders joined the project, and then at a late stage.(2)

Galbraith similarly seems to read the contemporary Iraq situation with lenses not admitting more than three colors. An important subtext throughout the book is the charge that the Bush administration has inadvertently handed power in Iraq over to the Iranians; to buttress this argument Galbraith stereotypes the entire Shiite community as “pro-Iranian.” While there can be no doubt that Iran’s influence in Iraq was greatly augmented after 2003 and that Galbraith’s interpretation may hold true for at least some adherents of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), there is great diversity among Iraqi Shiites, not to mention the strong anti-Iranian leanings in large parts of the community. In particular, he disregards the rift between exiles and non-exiles, which has grown into a formidable cleavage within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). In fact, inside the UIA supporters of such home-grown forces as Muqtada al-Sadr, the Fadila Party and various Daawa factions have traditionally been skeptical of close ties to Iran – and indeed to any linkage between sect and territory of the kind that Galbraith variously propagates as a confederal or outright three-state solution.(3) On one occasion (p. 174) Galbraith quotes the widespread but as yet unsubstantiated media cliché that “elements of the Iranian regime have close ties to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr,” but generally he resorts to the even more hackneyed claim that SCIRI is the “most influential Shiite party in Iraq” (p. 3, p. 17 footnote). That claim is however imprecise with regard to levels of parliamentary representation and provincial power: in parliament, the Sadrists slightly outnumber SCIRI; at the local level, SCIRI do not control eight out of nine Shiite provinces, as Galbraith maintains (p. 198) – they are in fact out of office in the two most oil-rich provinces of the south (Basra and Maysan), and their nominal hold on several other provinces south of Baghdad is based on rather tenuous coalitions.(4)

Galbraith’s biases with regard to this intra-Shiite pluralism are particularly important, because they lead the reader to uncritically accept another problematic standard phrase about the Shiites, namely that they monolithically support a bid for a federal unit that would be made up of all majority-Shiite provinces in Iraq (this would have tallied with Galbraith’s ideas). Again, a closer look at the situation on the ground reveals competition between different visions – especially between proponents of a small-scale federal entity limited to three oil-rich Shiite provinces in the far south (this is the most enduring federal project by Shiites and it is regionalist rather than sectarian), and the more recent scheme to create a nine-governorate explicitly Shiite super-unit from Basra to Baghdad as a fence against Sunni terrorism (an idea which received a boost after the Samarra blast in February 2006, but whose core support still seems to come mainly from SCIRI politicians and their network of preachers and media outlets). This crucial distinction goes unrecognized in many journalistic reports out of Iraq, where increasing Shiite enthusiasm for the general principle of federalism almost automatically tends to get portrayed as support for the particular plan of a single large Shiite entity, and where considerable remaining Shiite skepticism towards federalism (especially among independents and Sadrists) is often overlooked completely.

On such empirical foundations rests Galbraith’s analysis of Iraq.  With the exception of the author’s claim that, in their inner conscience, leading Kurdish politicians are not in favor of Iraqi unity (p. 99), much of the remainder of his argument for partition is either based on the increasing levels of political violence more generally, or not related to Iraq at all. The idea of coexistence in Iraq is “absurd” charges Galbraith on pp. 100–101. The decisive proof? Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union all fell apart. But what about other possible comparisons, such as Lebanon – which descended into ethno-religious mayhem and saw extensive internal displacement of its population from 1975 to 1990, only to rise again as a unitary “mosaic”-like state? Today’s sectarian violence in Baghdad is certainly reminiscent of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, where talk of partition and confederations materialized in some circles at particularly gloomy junctures, only to dissipate later on. And what is Galbraith’s position on the large numbers of other “artificial”, post-colonial, multi-ethnic states worldwide that somehow continue to function?

Galbraith seems to have scant interest in such examples of ethno-religious coexistence and reconciliation; instead he mocks anyone who shows interest in keeping Iraq unified. He roundly condemns the Bush administration for the heinous crime of trying to secure a “non-ethnic Iraq” (p. 166) and castigates them for speaking of an “Iraqi people, as if there were a single people akin to the French or even the American people” (p. 83). But he fails to provide any historically convincing justification for his own quantum leap from diagnosing a state of civil strife to prescribing territorial, segregationist solutions. That lack of historical perspective is a serious problem, because it precludes the writer from distinguishing between societies that are chronically unstable and those that experience a serious but reversible flare-up of civic violence. It should serve as a reminder to Galbraith that his claims about Kurdish leader’s anti-Iraq attitudes cannot possibly be repeated with regard to Sunni and Shiite elites, and that, despite the ongoing horrific violence, large masses of Iraqis, certainly in the Arab areas, continue to demand a “national Iraqi” army, a “national Iraqi” oil distribution policy, and a meaningful role for Baghdad as capital.

But Galbraith has already made up his mind. His “solution” – the “three state solution” – is covered in chapters 10 and 11 and may be what many readers of this book are really interested in. Such a territorial solution of separating Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs may appear superficially attractive to Democratic and liberal audiences in the United States, simply by offering a clear-cut alternative to Bush’s Iraq policy. Instead of semantic fidgeting with “timetables for withdrawals,” “threats of withdrawal” or “deadlines for withdrawal,” partition may come across as an innovative, hands-on approach that can mark a clear alternative to the line of the current administration. (If implemented it could also be trumpeted as ultimate evidence that everything the Republicans ever did in Iraq was profoundly misguided.) In short, after years of Democratic discomfiture over an Iraq situation where criticism of US policy always risked being deemed unpatriotic, partition schemes may now give the impression of being deliciously refreshing. That is also why they are particularly worrying, first and foremost for the Iraqi people who would experience an exacerbation of ethno-religious conflict instead of its reversal, but also as precedents that could lead to the dismantling of multi-ethnic polities elsewhere in the world.  What a sad prospect it would be to have a twenty-first century agenda in international politics dominated by an uninspired revival of First World War ideas about ethno-religious self-determination – all as the result of the opposition’s scrabbling around for a vote-winning US foreign policy.

The interesting thing here is that Galbraith’s “solution” is in fact far less clear-cut than his chapter headings suggest. Ultimately he acknowledges that it is not for the United States to decide whether Iraq should be broken up, and, in the event of any partition, whether it should be divided into three or four or more states. (Many of his partisans are not so restrained in this regard.) At last, Galbraith recognizes – at least implicitly –that the Shiites are not such a united bloc, and that several statelets might well materialize through a process of federalization, with the United States quite powerless to affect the turn of events. (He seems to voice some preference for a single Shiite state; presumably this would form a stronger counterweight to Iran than several statelets, p. 219.) The consequence, of course, is that, in terms of formulating a comprehensive policy alternative, Galbraith’s “plan” is not really all that sophisticated. It differs little from the more standard demand for immediate US withdrawal, except for the barely disguised call for putting more arms into Kurdish hands (p. 215) and the prospect of erecting a permanent US military base in Kurdish territory – this would apparently do service as a deterrent against what Galbraith candidly describes as the danger of carbon copies of Taliban-era Afghanistan and revolutionary Iran evolving in Sunni and Shiite areas as side effects of his plan. In other words, this is basically a “let’s get out and hope for the best” initiative.  That position merits a separate and serious discussion on its own terms; suffice to say in this context that Galbraith’s contribution is by no means the original, distinctive and radical “solution” promised to the reader in the chapter headings.

One concludes this book with the impression of an author who may well end up serving in a T.E. Lawrence–like capacity for the Kurds, but who lacks a solidly cast policy proposal for all the territory of modern Iraq. At its best, Galbraith’s book offers interesting insights into the mind of an influential US intellectual. At its worst it seems a pre-written obituary that has long been languishing in a desk drawer. The country it describes stubbornly refuses to lie down and die; hence, the author has turned sour and through increasingly heated ad hoc addendums to the text does his utmost to accelerate the final exit. The End of Iraq is in itself far from lethal, but the possibility that other Western intellectuals may try to surpass Galbraith remains.


1. The Arabic version of the constitution is more unequivocal than many English translations with regard to article 117, in that it consistently refers to “federal” (ittihadi) law being subordinated to regional law. (Some English translations use the more vague term “national” law.) Galbraith’s idea of federalizing rights issues is in itself innovative and has certain attractive aspects as a possible model for polities with strong secular/religious divides; the problem, however, is that, due to US pressures for a bill of rights on the Western pattern during the Transitional Administrative Law negotiations back in 2004, there emerged the Islamist counterpoise of a ban of legislation contradicting Islam. Once instituted at the national level, this “Islamic imperative” will prove exceedingly difficult to undo (theoretically, it could have been vested in the federal states instead), however much that might have soothed tensions in Iraqi politics generally.

2. On this movement, its relationship to the competing “Iraq” concept, and the potentials and limitations of separatist movements in southern Iraq in general, see Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2005/New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006).

3. For an interesting analysis of how the Fadila Party taps into exile/non-exile tension to garner support, see Mazin Hasan,"Irak'ta Sii koalisyounu: sorunlari ve gelecegi"[The Shiite coalition in Iraq: current and future issues], forthcoming in Avrasya Dosyasi, autumn 2006.

4. On the question of internal factionalism within the United Iraqi Alliance and its consequences for the issue of Iraq’s state structure, see “Beyond SCIRI and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim: The Silent Forces of the United Iraqi Alliance”, January 2006, available from

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Enrique jara - 9/4/2006

Great review of the book. Makes me wonder what possible solution is there for Iraq? I feel Bush made a tremendous mistake in invading Iraq but now I am wondering if a change of policy to the one champion by Mr Galbraith will be any better to the people of Iraq and the world. Only time will tell what is in store for Iraq.