Time for Iraqi Self-Determination

The Bush administration and Congress have put too much faith in governments–”the U.S. as well as the Iraqi–”to remedy the chaos in Iraq. To keep the pressure on the administration for eventual U.S. troop withdrawals, the Democrats have already begun to blame the Iraqi government for not meeting benchmarks for progress and are threatening to include them in legislation.

Some congressional Republicans, sensing another electoral disaster in 2008, are beginning to mimic such Democratic arguments. Although the time is not yet ripe for a congressionally required schedule for troop withdrawal to override a presidential veto, the time for blaming the Iraqis and attempting to impose benchmarks will soon arrive.

The administration hopes that the U.S. military escalation will buy the Iraqi government time to meet those benchmarks, specifically those that include refraining from supporting Shi’ite militias, reversing the U.S.–”created de-Baathification program that keeps many competent Sunnis out of the Iraqi government, and enacting a law to share oil revenues.

Given the current Iraqi governing structure, don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these signs of progress. For example, recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office fired high-level security officials who wanted to go after radical Shi’ite militias. The largely partisan Shi’ite government is also resisting hiring more Sunnis, and the few Sunnis in the government are threatening to withdraw from it. In addition, the draft agreement to share oil revenues, which was approved by the Iraqi cabinet, has languished in the Iraqi parliament and might very well come apart.

Democrats, Republicans, and eventually even the Bush administration will come to blame the Iraqis to justify the inevitable pull-out of U.S. forces. But such recriminations blame the victims. Even if the al-Maliki government had the best of intentions–”which is not at all clear–”it would be unlikely to overcome the powerful centrifugal forces in this fractious and violent Iraq society. Congress and the Bush administration act as if they believe that any government can remedy problems with only the stroke of a pen. But U.S. officials’ experience is in America. Despite the presence of numerous ethnic and racial groups in this country, the U.S. government rests on a bedrock of shared values in the larger society. In Iraq, no such societal consensus exists.

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’a lived in peace with each other only because of Saddam’s iron rule. Iraq is an artificially created country that was held together at gunpoint. Because of the internal tensions caused by the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, and the grinding international economic sanctions against Iraq for more than a decade, Saddam, to defend his Sunni minority regime, created permanent inter-group bitterness by repressing and slaughtering Kurds and the majority Shi’a. When Saddam’s autocratic regime was destroyed by the U.S. invasion, the country predictably unraveled into warring factions. The only surprising thing was the Bush administration’s astonishment at this outcome.

The administration and congressional Democrats and Republicans have not yet admitted that any Iraqi government, short of another Saddam-like dictatorship, cannot maintain a unified Iraq. A substantial majority of Iraqis don’t want to be Iraqi citizens. The Kurds and a majority of Shi’a would like to go their own way. The Sunnis probably would too, if guaranteed some oil or oil revenues. Even if the United States, in desperation, threw its support behind another authoritarian leader in waiting, that person, in order to rule a stable and unified Iraq, would have to win the civil war that is already in its early stages.

It may be too late to save Iraq from a massive bloodbath, but the only hope remaining is to attempt to use a U.S. withdrawal to hammer out an agreement that would decentralize the Iraqi government, allow self-determination among the various groups, and create oil revenue sharing. This decentralization plan could take the form of a loose confederation of autonomous regions or even a partition into several states. Given the history of Iraq, each sectarian/ethnic group is afraid that the central government, controlled by another group, will oppress the others and take a disproportionate share of the oil revenues. An agreement to decentralize governance and share oil revenues could alleviate many of these concerns.

The Bush administration doesn’t have much time left to orchestrate a “withdrawal with decentralization” because the main groups in Iraq are splintering and may not be able to guarantee that their sub-factions will observe any agreement that is reached. It is still worth an administration attempt, though. The alternative is full blown civil war with U.S. forces caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, the administration seems frozen in the headlights of the onrushing train.