A Stable, United Iraq Is Hardly a Sure Thing

One of the more promising ideas to come from Vice President Joseph Biden is his proposal in 2006 and 2007 for decentralizing Iraq. Biden didn’t go as far as some analysts, such as Independent Institute Senior Fellow Ivan Eland and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, would have liked. But Biden’s op-eds with Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, did much to publicize the idea that long-run harmony between Iraq’s contentious groups would require a departure from the strong, centralized government paradigm.

For some analysts, the burning question became, which type of decentralized governance would best reduce conflict in Iraq? A federation (à la Biden and Gelb)? A confederation (like the European Union or the Commonwealth of Independent States)? Or a certain kind of partition (as recommended by Ivan Eland)?

Of course, a lot can happen in the span of a few years—including the Obama-Biden victory and the subsequent appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State. Presumably Clinton, who seems less friendly to the idea of a decentralized Iraq, will play a leading role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. (According to his wife, Biden was offered the choice between VP and Secretary of State—a disclosure that must have embarrassed a few people.) More recently, some commentators have hailed last week’s elections in Iraq as a clear victory for the national government and a strong sign that a unified, stable Iraq is viable and imminent. I am not so sure.

It is premature to dismiss the need for decentralizing Iraq for at least one reason: Iraq’s election outcome probably has more than a little to do with the security environment provided, directly and indirectly, by the U.S. military. But that environment is not a given. What matters more is whether Iraqi society will become more stable and harmonious or more fractured and violent after the U.S. withdrawal.

In an insightful interview published February 5, Univ. of Pennsylvania political scientist Brendan O’Leary, a former constitutional advisor to the Kurdish Regional Government, restates the case for a decentralized Iraq. Here’s an except: “If you want to get out with the minimum of horror and the maximum prospects of stabilizing Iraq as a democracy, you have to have a major rethink. Internally, you have to ask yourself what will make Iraq work best: A highly decentralized federation with minimal central capacity in Baghdad, which means that neither the Shia nor the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, nor the Kurds, will be dominated by any one group in Baghdad. They will each have maximum self-government for themselves either in their own region or in their own sets of provinces. . . . It gives them sufficient things in common, such as potential agreements that they can have over natural resources and the protection of their external boundaries to keep them together.”

For more on the case for a decentralized Iraq, see Ivan Eland’s January 2005 monograph, The Way Out of Iraq: Decentralizing the Iraqi Government, and his forthcoming (April 2009) book, Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq.

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of Independent’s weekly e-mail newsletter The Lighthouse.
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