Posted by: Steve Coplan | November 20, 2006

Why can’t they all just get along?

My erudite compatriot Rootless Cosmopolitan will, I am certain, provide a more comprehensive response to Condi’s latest pronouncement on the internal affairs of a supposedly independent country – Unite or else – but her comment does make for a segue to my observations. In the wake of the long-awaited turn of the tide towards the Democrats, the Iraq debate has now been transformed into when and by what number will US forces be drawn down. Far more insightful military minds -most notably Anthony Zinni who was one of the first generals to call for Rummy’s head – have already pointed out that drawing down troops will do more harm than good. The flagrant arrogance of the Bush administration illustrated by Condi’s comments has translated into monumentally flawed assumptions, principally that Iraqis as a whole want to remain Iraqis. Essentially, they have opened a Pandora’s box, and stuffing the contents back in the box will require more than direct orders. The civil war is partly the result of the vaccum created by the decapitation of a tyrant, the absence of a strong central government and inflamed by the presence of US troops, but it’s also because that the country of Iraq was basically a bad idea from the outset. Created by European bureaucrats by unifying several Ottoman provinces who imported a king from an illustrious Mecca family, the country can only be held together by a strong central goverment with minimal devolution of power to provinces. The need for a strong man (otherwise known as a dictator) is clearly in contradiction to the governing principles of democracy.

The Democrats could push through a federal state with strong regional governments, but the risks are enormous. The only Iraqis with any vested interest in the continued existence of the currently constituted Iraqi state are the Sunnis, who have lived off oil subsidies from the Kurdish north and Shi’a south. The Kurds of the north play by the US’s rules for the moment, but haven’t for a moment lost sight of the dream of an independent Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government prints its own money and is slowly accumulating all the exterior trappings of statehood. Of course, sanctioning an independent Kurdistan would inflame Turkey at a particularly delicate time for that country where Islamist parties could move from a plurality to a majority. And let’s not forget that Turkey is in the advanced stages of entry into the EU.

The Shia have been willing participants in the democratic process because they are the numerical majority, and presumably democracy represents the workings of the will of the majority. Still, the idea of an independent Arab Shia entity must appeal to a large enough constituency to make it an issue that can’t be skirted. Apart from Hizbullah’s state within a state in the 1980s, there has been precious few moments in history when Shia Arabs have enjoyed political independence. Plus, the idea of the major centers of Shia scholarship – like Karbala, Najaf, Kufa and Samarra – coming under the control of a Shia government must have some support. It’s unclear what level of support a government based on sharia would hold, but it’s likely that clerics as the only leadership with popular support and respect would play a prominent role in the government. From the perspective of US strategic interests and against the backdrop of an incredibly antigonizing and polarizing foreign policy, an Shia Arab state that borders on Iran and would control the major oil shipping lane on the Shatt al Arab would be an enormous risk. The Democrats could simply not sustain the flak the idea would generate.

No wonder Condi dreams of a unified Iraq.


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