As the Iraq War enters its fourth year and the media reads the tea leaves to see if a “civil war” has officially begun, top officials of the Bush administration continue to try to spin their way to victory by using “happy talk.” Although public relations offensives are the way wars are fought inside the capital beltway, the sectarian groups in Iraq aren’t playing by the rules of Washington movers and shakers. The worsening civil warin Bush administration euphemism, “sectarian violence”is now more worrisome to the president’s battlefield commanders than the Sunni insurgency. While liberals insist that Iraq has plunged into civil war and conservatives continue to believe that the violence can only be quelled by a stronger Iraqi government, no one is looking at the important question of what direction future U.S. policy should take.
A quick look at Iraq’s history reveals that government intervention, beginning with the British government’s meddling after World War I, is primarily responsible for the country’s current problems. The British created the artificial state of Iraq from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout its history, Iraq has been held together only by brute force of authoritarian power. Although the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq traditionally have lived in peace, during Saddam’s rule, he deliberately stoked ethnic and religious cleavages in a “divide and conquer” strategy. After the naïve U.S. invasion removed the only brake on Iraqi centrifugal forces, Saddam’s earlier fueling of sectarian animosities has come home to roost in the current civil war between the Sunni and Shi’a. Even though the interventions of governments have caused most of Iraq’s current difficulties, the Bush administration and other conservatives, such as George Will, apparently believe that somehow stronger government is also the answer. Quite the contrary.
Will argues that in the absence of a strong central government “sectarian clustering” will occur. Sectarian clustering is not necessarily a bad thing unless compelled by force of arms. People should be allowed to live freely where they want. The problem in Iraq was that the Sunni insurgents deliberately struck Shi’ite targets to provoke Shi’ite militias into the civil war that has already begun. And the Sunnis began their insurgency for three reasons. The first was to oust the U.S. government’s occupation of their homeland and later the Shi’ite/Kurdish interim government that it was propping up. The second was to avoid paybacks for the excesses of the Saddam era by that and future Iraqi Shi’ite/Kurdish central governments. The third was to prevent the Shi’ite/Kurdish government from controlling all of Iraq’s oil wealthwhich lies mainly in the northern Kurdish and southern Shi’ite regions of the countryand perhaps leaving the Sunnis without any if those regions decided to become autonomous or secede from Iraq, as seems increasingly likely.
In fact, perhaps the solution to Iraq lies in such sectarian clustering. Instead of fighting the powerful centrifugal forces in Iraq, perhaps the United States and the Iraqis should embrace them. A grand conclave of all Iraqi groups should be held to negotiate the decentralization of Iraq. Such an arrangement would probably entail a very loose confederation with a weak central government or an outright partition (with each group not necessarily inhabiting contiguous areas) with no Iraqi central government. Minimizing or eliminating the central government would eliminate the fear by Iraqi groups that the central government would be taken over by one group and used to oppress all others. To get the Sunnis to agree to such decentralization and to quell their fears that they would be left with only a rump state devoid of oil revenues, the Shi’a and Kurds would need to reach an oil revenue sharing agreement with them or actually give them territory containing oil wells. To encourage the Shi’a and the Kurds to make such concessions, the United States should announce a rapid withdrawal of the U.S. forces that are now artificially propping up the Iraqi central government.
The reality is that Iraq is already effectively decentralized. Numerous militias control large areas and cannot be disarmed. Also, the Bush administration makes the questionable assumption that the Iraqi security forces will remain national and not break up to match the sectarian divides in Iraqi society. Yet the administration and many other conservatives, who would never embrace big government solutions at home, are proponents of strengthening the Iraq government. But to really be effective in holding the fractious Iraqi society together, the central government would probably have to resume Saddam-like dictatorial powerssomething that no one wants.
The United States should attempt to spur peaceful negotiations to codify the de facto decentralization on the ground rather than continuing its bid to impose an unworkable U.S.-style federation on Iraq. Current U.S. policy will continue to exacerbate, rather than dampen, the ongoing civil war.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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