After initially spurning the Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) recommendations, President Bush now seems inclined toward the ISG’s recommendation of transforming the U.S. military’s role from fighting insurgents and militias into a smaller force that would train Iraqi forces in seeming perpetuity. Although this solution would lower U.S. casualties, and perhaps increase Republican chances in the 2008 elections, it will do little to dampen the combination of guerrilla and civil war in Iraq. A more radical solution is needed: a dramatic decentralization of Iraqi governance.

This ISG strategy has actually already been tried and has failed. U.S. forces have been training Iraqis for years but the Bush administration elected to spearhead the surge into Baghdad with U.S. forces because Iraqi units were unreliable. Like the Vietnam War, where the substitution of U.S.–trained South Vietnamese forces for withdrawing U.S. forces failed, the same plan will fail in Iraq. In Iraq, the United States is in a worse situation because it disbanded the Iraq Army and had to start from scratch.

“Iraqization” will fail for the same reason that “Vietnamization” did—societal cleavages prevent a “national” army from saving a fractured country. After the U.S.–approved coup that threw out South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese government never had any legitimacy with its own people and became infiltrated with Viet Cong. In an Iraqi society ruptured by three wars, international economic sanctions, and Saddam Hussein’s divide-and-conquer style of ruling, the United States can train Iraqi forces ad infinitum but their first loyalty will be to their ethnic/sectarian/tribal groups rather than to the Iraqi state.

In any solution to the Iraq problem, the two main causes of the violence must be eliminated. The first is the U.S. occupation. The second is suspicions that one ethnic/sectarian group in Iraq will use a strong central government to oppress the other groups. To eliminate the two major sources of violence, the United States should use an immediate withdrawal of its forces to motivate Iraqi factions to decentralize the country into a loose confederation of autonomous regions. Iraq has already been effectively divided into autonomous areas, and Sunni insurgents and Kurdish and Shi’ite militias are governing those regions. What is needed is to have all Iraqi groups agree to this decentralized arrangement and adjust the boundaries. The Iraqi Constitution already allows for a great deal of decentralization, and the major obstacle is to get the Sunnis, who have little oil in their region, to agree to such a devolution of power. The actual details of the confederation have to be negotiated among the Iraqi groups or it will not be viable, but some suggestions could be offered.

The Sunnis could be given oil wells in the northern and southern parts of the country. Merely sharing oil revenues among the regions probably would not work because the Sunnis would be suspicious that the Kurdish and Shi’ite regional governments would eventually cut them off from such proceeds.

Thus, the boundaries of the autonomous regions may not always be contiguous, because of the oil deposits and because ethnic/sectarian boundaries do not permit it. It is a fallacy, however, that such boundaries need to be contiguous for a successful outcome.

A loose confederation of Iraqi mini-states could mitigate some of the problems that an outright partition of the country might create. Turkey might be less concerned that an independent Iraqi Kurdish state might foment further unrest and desires of separation among Turkish Kurds. Increased influence of Shi’ite Iran over the Shi’a in southern Iraq, a natural by-product of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, might be ameliorated if there were no independent Shi’ite mini-states in the south.

In such a confederation, the central government could be very weak and might only have the power to conduct foreign policy—for example, diplomacy and trade negotiations with other nations—and prohibit any internal barriers to commerce within the confederation. The regional governments could provide security and other governmental functions.

Obviously, the Iraqis would have to determine the specific boundaries of the autonomous regions, and this could be contentious—especially around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Yet the Bush administration has no other viable choice in trying to stanch a situation spinning rapidly out of control. Even this solution may not work because the factions in Iraq are splintering and may not be able to enforce any agreement reached with other groups. The decentralized solution would have had a better chance if it had been adopted two years ago. But better late than never. It is Iraq’s last hope.