Thursday, August 9, 2007

Withdrawal from Iraq

Matt over at Foreign Policy Watch has put up an interesting post on the ever-present question of how the United States ought to play out the endgame in Iraq. He points to a recent op-ed by Henry Kissinger on the subject. Herr doktor outlines (in terms that are a bit vague for my taste) the necessity of aggressive regional diplomacy to stem a violent breakup of Iraq and invest all relevant regional players in some type of engineered solution that avoids the total implosion of the Middle East. At the end of his post, Matt asks "What is your favorite exit strategy from Iraq (fantasy or not)? And which celebrity foreign policy hand would endorse it?"

The comment boxes over at FP Watch are small, so I thought I would take up the question here. As I may have previously intimated, some variant of the increasingly popular Biden-Gelb plan for U.S. disengagement makes the most sense from my perspective. Briefly, the plan draws on the experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Dayton accords, arguing that Iraq, along the lines of its own Constitution, should be transformed into a very loose federal confederation, in which the day-to-day business of governing (including the provision of security for the Iraqi populace) is devolved to regional power centers, and the central government exists primarily to distribute oil revenues. The argument is premised on the notion that once security and a stable political environment have been established, much of the impetus for ethnic violence, which thrives in chaos, will be diminished. The plan's architects are careful to point out that they are not proposing an outright partition of Iraq along the lines of Palestine or India. Tom Ashbrook, speaking to Senator Biden recently on NPR, rightly pointed out that such stark arrangements have historically not worked out very well. The hope is that the presence of a weak central government to adjudicate disputes will help avoid inter-ethnic warfare and undercut whatever interests regional powers such as Turkey and Iran have in stoking such conflict (or participating in it outright).

This plan has been around in some form for the better part of two years, and has garnered no shortage of legitimate criticism. The first point is that de jure legitimization of ethnic politics will encourage ethnic cleansing in Iraq. While the plan's champions have tried to deemphasize this fear, in my opinion it is well-placed. Senator Biden has been quick to point out that significant ethnic cleansing is already taking place in Iraq, that it is in effect a fait accompli; however, I think he is being overly simplistic. There are still many parts of Iraq, particularly urban Iraq, with mixed ethnic populations (they may have retreated into enclave neighborhoods; however, that will be of little consequence in a city such as Baghdad, which is an island of ethnic diversity surrounded by a Sunni sea). Those populations would likely be encouraged to move (and I use the word "encouraged" in its most euphemistic sense). We should come out and admit, right now, that this strategy will almost certainly lead to significant ethnic cleansing. Frankly, at this point I see no way to avoid this eventuality irrespective of American action. The challenge will be to keep a lid on the worst of the violence, and keep such population movements from metastasizing into a larger war.

A second problem with the plan is the role it calls the central government to play. If the government's primary responsibility is to be oil distribution, mechanisms will have to exist to make sure that it is capable of doing so in an equitable way. As many people have pointed out, most known Iraqi oil exists in the Shia and Kurd-dominated areas of the country. The government will need a base level of functionality and legitimacy to be able to carry out effective and transparent transfers of this wealth around the country. If it is unable to do so, for example if a largely Shia-dominated government denies Iraq's Sunni population its fair share, it could end up accelerating a civil war rather than preventing one. The optimist would hope that the aforementioned separation of the parties would cool ethnic tensions enough to make the government function more smoothly, but this outcome is far from assured.

A final problem with this solution is that a devolution of security responsibilities to what are now ethnic militias could lead to internacine conflict within ethnic groups to see which organization would predominate. An aggressive diplomatic effort to unite these disparate groups behind a single mission and purpose would have to accompany the overarching strategy in order to avert the total collapse of Iraqi society. In this vein, real regional diplomacy to limit the extent to which Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran intervene in Iraqi ethnic politics - diplomacy that would assure all states of their vital interests, guaranteed by a continued robust (albiet somewhat withdrawn) US presence in the region - could presumably pull this off.

As I've made quite clear, this plan is no silver bullet. Its successful implementation will require incredible skill, quite a bit of luck, and may all end in tears regardless. The situation in Iraq is such that the United States is left choosing between abysmal options. Middle East diplomacy, in the short term, has been reduced to the level of damage control. Despite all its difficulties, Biden-Gelb strikes me as the best strategy in this regard.

1 comment:

Matt Bondy said...

Hi there,

I came to this site by way of FP Watch. Great blog you've got here.

Would you like to exchange links?

Let me know.