Break Up to Make Up
by James W. Riley
After the political spinning has backfired, utopian dreams of Western liberal democracy in Iraq lay shattered, and tribal and sectarian loyalties undermine efforts to unite and pacify a country spiraling into civil war, one is pressed to ask: How realistic is U.S. foreign policy in terms of its ability to quell the bloodshed in Iraq? Or more specifically, how will the United States end the ensuing Iraqi civil war fuelled by U.S. occupation? The answer is simple: It can't.
This hasn't dissuaded U.S. policymakers from offering their take on the present course in Iraq. Amitai Etzioni, director of George Washington University's Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, initiated a dialogue session on Capital Hill yesterday entitled: "Plan Z: Community Based Security in Iraq." The panel's deep bench consisted of Senator Joseph Biden's (D-DE) chief Middle East advisor Puneet Talwar, Carlos Pascual and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, among others.
Underlying the dialogue was a position paper authored by Etzioni, which draws on his soon-to-be published book, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, but is also a communitarian adaptation of Leslie Gelb's ideas on Iraqi federalism, championed by Biden in the Biden-Gelb plan. Etzioni's proposal promotes introducing a High Devolution State (HDS), which grants "a high level of autonomy to the 18 provinces that make up Iraq." The idea is straight forward enough; Iraqis should police their own communities: Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurd.
Talwar, who spoke on behalf of the Senator, reiterated his position that withdrawal is inevitable, but stressed that how this is done is central to its success. In his call for federalism, Talwar listed political decentralization to the local level, securing support for Sunnis, increased economic assistance tied to minority rights and enlisting regional powers to play a role as vital. Talwar's most provocative claim called for a complete repeal of the Authorization of Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
O'Hanlon offered a slightly different take on how a HDS should be formed when attempting to pre-empt further ethnic conflict looming on the horizon by actively partaking in what O'Hanlon called "soft partition." This process would consist of U.S.-sponsored ethnic segregation via relocation within a period of 12–18 months. O'Hanlon admits bloodshed would continue and resistance would be substantial. However, with support of local leaders violence might diminish and hard partitioning could be avoided. Much of the justification for this plan is based on observations that violence between and within Iraqi communities based on ethnicity and sectarian divisions is already widespread, and this could easily spiral into full-fledged ethnic cleansing. Yet, one crucial criticism of this approach rang clear: No U.S.-led mass relocation of peoples has ever taken place without great costs and suffering by those being relocated.
But elaborate plans and digressions from Iraq's newly existing constitution may not be unnecessary. Ms. Ottaway expressed her conviction that a unitary state was never a reality and it is "time to start implementing the constitution", which allows for a devolved state short of hard or soft partition. With "too many actors and no real control", partitioning Iraq would be viewed as maliciously dividing a region. Complete autonomy for the provinces is not going to guarantee less tension because Shi'a and Sunni communities are not monolithic. The constitution, however, is still "relevant and useful" because it would keep the state intact, which would reduce the likelihood of interference by neighboring countries while granting locals the opportunity to enact the rule of law.
Although far from a cure-all, Pascual viewed this constitutional approach a logical step, considering there can be "no successful or sustainable use of force" without an agreed upon political settlement which makes the rule of law enforceable. But the obstacles to bringing the constitution to life take many shapes; federal and regional relations, oil revenues, militias and terrorism just to name a few. Pascual went further to point out that partition or devolution to local autonomy is dangerous without understanding the role of community-based militias and their relation to other communities and, to a larger extent, the state. In his view, community-based security has a high probability of backfiring—quite literally.
Building on Ottaway's and Pascual's points, panelists argued against the community-based approach. Etzioni noted that if each province is allowed to control its borders, sectarian violence would be reduced, but exactly how each province would do this would be left up to each community to decide. Yet the devil is in the details and without defining any specific guidelines much is left unaccounted for in the realm of U.S. interests. The United States is already viewed with distrust in the region, so theories and experimental policies forwarded by the United States would be un-welcomed and fruitless.
Preble made sure to highlight the power vacuum that community-based security could create—one that could easily be filled by a country like Iran. Thus, empowering local communities as stakeholders in their own security might be used as an opportunity to further expand Iran's role as the "indispensable player " in the region.
Furthermore, self-proclaimed "token neo-conservative" Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism called models drawn from the Balkans, "superficial parallels." And a "loose confederation" of three autonomous regions highlights the unresolved problems of southeastern Europe.
Nonetheless, Etzioni is spot-on that safety from death and lawlessness is the basis for any functioning society. Without this basic insurance democracy has no chance of taking root in any historical circumstance. And while it is convenient to comment on the improbability of success in a communitarian approach to quelling violence in Iraq, the reality is that the United States cannot offer any solution to a tumultuously diverse country at present because it is not viewed as part of the regional community. As one attendee pointed out, it is Islamic countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that have more to offer; democracy mixing with religiosity absent violence. Panelists also suggested that bringing the UN and other international organizations back into the picture is still more promising then any unilateral surge that fails to catalyze a political agreement among Iraqi communities. Essentially, elevating Iraq as a member of the international community still leaves room for a communitarian approach. Applying this approach to the micro-level may be no easy feat, but "Plan Z" made clear that there aren't many options left.
James W. Riley is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.