Over at Exit Strategies, the new paleocon foreign policy group blog, Jim notes The New Republic‘s endorsement of a soft partition in Iraq and comments:
I’d like to favor a soft partition myself… Yet I’m skeptical. TNR acknowledges the pitfalls: “Aside from the Kurds and one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), none of the main Iraqi players have any interest in carving up the country. The status of Baghdad would pose a Jerusalem-like obstacle to any federal agreement, to say nothing of the details of oil-sharing and shared security. If the plan failed to thread any of these needles, it could inflame sectarian tensions rather than calm them.” If those are the obstacles in Iraq, the fact that soft partition could create a bipartisan consensus in Washington sounds rather less reassuring.
Such a plan would also require us to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for several more years, potentially increasing the risks that the conflict will spread to Iran and putting more American lives in danger. Certainly for it to be deemed preferable to withdrawal we would need a better indication that a soft partition can work — and can be facilitated by the United States — than the fact that we can get both Democrats and Republicans to support it.
A couple of points:
- TNR seems to be talking about the Biden-Gelb plan specifically. In my column* endorsing soft partition (which Jim links to in the passage I’ve ellipsised out), I quite deliberately referred to the plan put forth by Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings, which addresses some of the Biden-Gelb plan’s shortcomings, including the Baghdad question. Joseph and O’Hanlon suggest either splitting the city along the river or creating a forth region around the capital. It seems like this can be worked out one way or another.
- That reference to “one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council)” seems to imply that soft partition is a marginal view in Baghdad. In fact, the SIIC is the most powerful party in the country, with the largest bloc of seats in parliament. It’s true, though, that most Iraqis outside of the elite aren’t enthusiastic about splitting the country; the main reason is that both Sunnis and Shiites think that they can take over the whole country. There are a couple of trends that suggest that that attitude may recede in popularity: One of them is the prospect of Shiites turning against Iran-backed militias, just as the Sunnis in Anbar have turned against al Qaeda. Diminishing Iranian influences diminishes a driving force pushing toward radical sectarianism, and thus toward civil war. The other is that the Sunnis are becoming better-armed, which for the Shiite majority raises the cost, and (one hopes) diminishes the appeal, of a war to rule the whole country. (It’s not strictly true, by the way, that we’re “arming the Sunnis,” but our financial aid undoubtedly is making it easier for them to arm themselves.)
- If we withdraw and leave behind a bloodbath, the nosedive that American prestige has taken in Iraq will be ratified and deepened. Soft partition offers the best hope for leaving behind something stable and reversing that nosedive. It might not work, but it’s worth a try.
*Side note: I just noticed that in that I wrote “lemons-out-of-lemonade” in that column when I of course meant “lemons-into-lemonade.”