Saturday, July 28, 2007

The least bad plan for leaving Iraq

Slate Magazine: By Fred Kaplan
Back in the spring of 2004, when Galbraith first proposed splitting Iraq into a loose federation of three ethnic enclaves, I criticized the idea. He did have a point. 'Iraq' was an artifice from its outset, the product of a scheme to widen the British Empire in the wake of the First World War. When the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, it also imploded the artifice of a unified Iraqi nation, and there was no way to put the monster back together. It would be better, Galbraith argued, to let the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds govern themselves in autonomous regions, with a central authority doing little more than equitably distributing oil revenue. ...

My objections remain, but the context has changed. Amputation seems a terrible idea when one's limbs are still flexing. It's a bit more palatable when the alternative is death, and, in Iraq, the gangrene is spreading.

"The Iraq war is lost," Galbraith starkly declares in his new article. "Defeat," he continues, "is defined by America's failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place....

He has now abandoned his plan for a partitioned federation, regarding the southern two-thirds of Iraq—the areas dominated by Shiite and Sunni Arabs—as hopeless. ...Galbraith no longer describes Iraq as consisting of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Rather, he calls it "a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part."

Galbraith's own analysis points to one possible approach. Back when he advocated a tripartite federation, he noted (correctly) that Iraq was already moving in that direction—only violently. Now, more each day, sectarian militias are ethnically cleansing neighborhoods, even whole towns, where Shiites and Sunnis once casually mixed.

Before they withdraw, U.S. troops could try to help minorities relocate into areas where their ethnic brethren are in the majority—providing the means of transportation and, to the extent possible, safe passage. Iraqi troops and police may be very keen to assist, if not lead the way, in this mission—at least if Shiite forces are called on to help Shiites, Sunni forces to help Sunnis.

It's extremely discomfiting to abet ethnic segregation—but less so when the alternative might open the gates to mass murder.

Peter Galbraith and Les Gelb were among the early voices recognizing that the quest for a unified Iraq (post-military conflagration) was an illusion, and some form of soft-partition a necessity. Joe Biden signed on sometime later, but has been a pretty solitary voice in Congress in pushing this (as opposed to withdrawal of American troops without a specified future strategy) as a serious foreign policy alternative. Apparently Galbraith has thrown in the towel on effectively separating Sunni and Shi'a domains, and is now focusing on the Kurds. I have yet to read his most recent piece explaining this transition in his thinking (or in conditions on the ground); would that more political and military leaders had recognized the wisdom of this analysis long ago. Some catastrophes just keep getting worser and worser and alternatives (all bad, but some a bit less bad) fewer and fewer.

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