Joe Biden’s Iraqi federalism idea isn’t “terrible,” it just probably wouldn’t do much good

Max Fisher is upset about a couple of things. First, he’s irritated that Vice-President Joe Biden’s 2006 call for Iraq to be federalized, with significant autonomy for its Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiʿa communities, has, in the collective imagination of the DC foreign policy establishment, somehow morphed into a call to partition Iraq into three separate countries. Second, he’s concerned that the idea that Iraq should be partitioned, either in a soft/federalized way or in a hard/independent states way, is looking more and more like conventional wisdom among that same DC foreign policy establishment:

Except that this is a myth. In fact, Biden never actually proposed partitioning Iraq — but he does he want to divide it along softer, less drastic lines. His plan is that Iraq adopt a federal system in which the country would remain unified under a central government, but power would be shared between three semi-autonomous regions.

Perversely, much of DC, which for years has wrongly mocked Biden for proposing a plan he didn’t actually propose, has since come around to seeing both partition (the plan Biden didn’t propose) and the actual Biden plan as great ideas that could save Iraq. They’re wrong: Either plan would be a catastrophic disaster for the country.

Obviously Fisher is right about the misrepresentation of Biden’s idea; that’s unfair, and it’s fairly baffling, at least to the extent that even Obama administration officials (like Secretary of Defense Ash Carter) share in it. He’s also right, at least in my view, that partitioning Iraq into (presumably) three states would be a pretty bad idea that would most likely replace one largely Shiʿa government in Baghdad that is mistreating its Sunni Arab citizens with three governments, one Shiʿa, one Sunni Arab, and one Kurdish, that might well all decide to mistreat their minority populations while simultaneously fighting with each other over control of oil and water resources, and that might well bring the region’s simmering Kurdish question to an immediate and potentially violent head.

But a soft partition of Iraq into federal states under a weaker but still relevant central government in Baghdad wouldn’t be a “catastrophic disaster,” except insofar as it probably wouldn’t do anything to fix Iraq’s current problems. It’s hard, though, to see how it could make things any worse than they already are, and if it’s done right (a huge if, I grant you) it could actually maybe make things better.

Fisher starts his critique by listing all the ways in which hard and soft partition would be exactly alike, but I think he’s wrong on a couple of these points:

Both plans are meant to solve the problem of Iraqi sectarian groups fighting one another and refusing to coexist. But in fact both plans would make this problem worse. Both plans attempt to solve sectarianism by enshrining sectarianism into law.

Both, for example, would draw hard borders between sectarian regions and expect those regions’ governments to serve the interests of one particular sectarian group. That means families who live in the “wrong” region (say, Sunnis who live in the Shia-majority area) would be second-class citizens, assuming they are not simply forced to leave or even wiped out by ethnic cleansing.

A hard partition would very likely wind up doing this, yes. But a soft-partition doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, if the framers of a federalized Iraq were extraordinarily stupid and created places like The Kurdish Zone, The Sunni Arab Zone, and The Shiʿa Zone, and decreed that each region must only ever be governed by that group, it would be enshrining sectarianism into law. But creating a few (and maybe it doesn’t even have to just be three?) geographically-determined governates throughout the country with real autonomy, while it would certainly lead to a few regional governments that were dominated by one or another group, wouldn’t inevitably lead to repression or ethnic cleansing, particularly if the central government in Baghdad was able to make sure those things couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t “enshrine sectarianism into law” anymore than, say, Indiana’s borders “enshrine” Republican control of its state government into law.

Now, would a soft partition play out the way Fisher describes? It’s entirely possible. But things are already playing out that way anyway, aren’t they? Increasing local governance/autonomy, if it’s done properly, at least offers the chance of alleviating the very real sense that so many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs (primarily) seem to feel, which is that they are being totally shut out of their own government.

Likewise, neither of these plans acknowledges that sectarian conflict is in fact a symptom of deeper problems. For instance, discrimination, lawlessness, and corruption within the regular police and military often encourage people to believe that they need to rely on extralegal sectarian militias to preserve their safety, and to see their neighbors as potential threats who should be eliminated. Both partition and the Biden plan treat sectarianism as the ultimate problem, and in so doing would actually entrench those deeper problems and the violent instability they cause.

Well, again, that’s certainly the worst case scenario. On the other hand, here in America we mostly acknowledge (though we may quarrel over the specific details) that there are some areas in which the national government works best, but other areas in which it’s better for state and local governments to take the lead. “Lawlessness,” for example, is a big problem that we mostly deal with at the state/local level (and I realize there are plenty of examples of local police forces getting out of control, but I don’t see a lot of people suggesting that the FBI take over all crime-fighting in the country as a solution to that problem).

Why couldn’t the same principles we take for granted here in America work in Iraq? There’s nothing about federalizing Iraq that has to put sectarianism front and center in the process, and there is at least the chance that more localized government will help reduce corruption. Again, at the very least it probably can’t make that problem any worse than it already is.

Fisher goes on:

Both plans assume that sectarian identities are hard-wired and permanent. In fact, sectarian identity is fluid. Some research suggests that in times of peace and prosperity, people tend to adopt inclusive identities. But when the economy is poor or people feel unsafe, they will often narrow their identities. For example, in Somalia, when the country plunged into famine, people began to identify less with a broad national identity and more with a narrower clan affiliation. That helped exacerbate violence between clans. In other words, sectarianism was a result of Somalia’s deeper problems, not its cause. If we had jumbled around Somalia’s border, it wouldn’t have fixed a thing, because the problems that led to sectarian violence would still be there.

That is just as true in Iraq. If you carve out the Sunni region of Iraq, whether through full independence or just semi-autonomy, that’s not going to magically solve the underlying problems of corruption and resource competition and insecurity. Those problems are going to remain, and people are just going to divide along some different set of lines.

All of this is true, but it’s an argument for rebuilding Iraq and getting it to a place of decent governance and economic growth, which is absolutely necessary whether you keep Iraq as it is, convert it to a federal system, or turn the whole place into a giant experiment in anarcho-syndicalism. People get along better with their neighbors (whether or not sectarianism is a concern) when times are good and there’s enough prosperity to go around. The question is whether you think Iraq stands a better chance of achieving those things with one ship of fools running everything from Baghdad or if it would be better if that ship of fools was supplemented by three (or more) other ships of fools at the regional level. Again, your mileage may vary on the answer to that question, but it’s not obvious that federalism would make things worse.

Fisher acknowledges that hard partition brings its own problems, in that the unstable new nations might very well go to war with each other even as their internal strife continues to deteriorate, but then comes back to criticizing a federal plan:

As for a Biden-plan federalized Iraq, it would avoid this, but it would make the central government weaker, and thus make it harder for that central government to actually address the underlying problems. Those include, for example, corruption in the police force that leads police to only protect people who look like them, or an Iraqi army so weak that the country relies on sectarian militias to enforce security, even though those militias commit atrocities against different sects.

The Biden plan, rather, assumes those problems are unsolvable and should just be enshrined in a new constitution that endorses sectarian discrimination. It tells Iraq to go ahead and only give its citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.

Yeah, I don’t get how federalizing Iraq necessarily does any of these things. As Fisher acknowledges, the current un-federalized Iraq already has something of a problem with corrupt police and an army so brittle that it crumbles in a stiff breeze. And, of course, underlying both of those problems is the fact that, by all appearances, Iraq’s current government “only gives its citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.” Reorganizing the country along federal lines doesn’t assume those problems are unsolvable so much as it assumes they’re unsolvable by that current government, which they may very well be.

Building a stronger army might well be easier in an Iraq whose sizable Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities feel like they have a voice in how they are being governed, and a central government that was built around real input from all of Iraq’s communities might well do a better job of rooting out police corruption and making sure that justice is applied equally across the board. Would it? Probably not; I mean, we Americans don’t really have a good handle on some of this stuff ourselves. But again, I don’t see how it inevitably makes the problem worse. Fisher seems to think that a federal Iraq must mean a drastically weakened central government in Baghdad, but that’s plainly not the case; we’ve got a pretty strong central government here, after all, and anyway there’s nothing to suggest that a somewhat weaker government in Baghdad wouldn’t actually be good for Iraq, given that a strong government in Baghdad has led the country into a total catastrophe.

Fisher’s real talk on the fixing Iraq should be familiar to anybody who’s taken a freshman philosophy course:

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism,

Right on. Similarly, the only real way to address climate change is by addressing climate change, the only real way to fix our campaign finance system is by fixing our campaign finance system, and the only real way to lose weight is by losing weight. Nice tautology-ing, everybody, top marks all around.

to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

Oh, OK. The only solution to Iraq’s problems is to fundamentally change basic human nature in a way that we haven’t come close to doing even here in the far more peaceful and prosperous United States. Let’s get right on that.

That is going to be terrifyingly difficult and take many years no matter what.

You don’t say.

In fact, it’s probably impossible, and so instead of pointlessly grinding wheels trying to force a change in human nature, the better solution is to build a functional government that is bound by the rule of law to defuse inter-group hostility and to guarantee “security and rights” to everybody regardless of whether or not the people all come together to share a Coke and sign on to some nebulous “new social contract.” This process would take many years and be prohibitively difficult as well, but it has the virtue of having a snowball’s chance in hell of actually working out someday. That functional Iraqi government doesn’t have to be federal in nature, but it could be, which is why the idea that federalism would undoubtedly make Iraq’s problems worse seems a bit overblown.

But either a partition plan or the Biden federalism plan would make it worse rather than better.

Why? I’m still not clear on that.

Partition or federalism end up feeling like attractive policies because they seem appropriately drastic, but also are clear and straightforward and could at least in theory be implemented pretty quickly. The idea that partition might be enough, that we only have to solve the surface issue of sectarian violence, is a lie we tell ourselves to avoid the hard truths about Iraq’s deeper problems and how difficult and time-consuming they will be to solve. It’s just another version of the lie we told ourselves in 2003, that we would be greeted as liberators and home in time for Christmas.

Ah, I think I understand now. Fisher seems to think that all these DC foreign policy types are talking about partition as a one-shot “done and done” cure-all. Obviously that would be silly. But if there are any serious foreign policy types out there arguing that partition on its own would cure everything that ails Iraq, then Fisher hasn’t really managed to find any to cite in his piece (favoring some kind of partition is not the same thing as thinking that a partition will magically fix everything by itself). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way saying that federalizing Iraq would definitely be a good idea, and in fact I suspect (as the title says) that it wouldn’t do much good. But it seems to me that federalizing the country could at least be one component of an effort to improve the situation, and after reading Fisher’s piece I’m still not sure how you can say that it would inevitably make Iraq’s problems worse.

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