Archive for July 2007

Leaving Iraq: What to Do?

July 12, 2007

On July 8, the editors of the New York Times joined the chorus of Iraq leavers in a very long editorial. It was a reasonable job, yet it left many things to be desired. First, it ignored the growing evidence from Anbar and neighboring provinces that we can work with local Sunni militia in our efforts to defeat the extremists. This is the most promising opening in several years. It would surely close were these Sunnis to learn that American withdrawal were imminent.

I assume part of the reason for this omission is the general assumption that success in Iraq rides of the shoulders of the Shi’a majority. This ignores the very real probability that the Sunni will once again lead the country, a hope that the Sunni resistance certainly clings to. As I have pointed out before in these blogs, minorities frequent lead countries, often for centuries. The role of the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi is a well-known example. This suggests that developing alliances with Sunni movements in the west and north of the country may be more fruitful than it appears at first.

Of course, one of the problems with getting out of any situation, is that if one stayed just a little longer, it might turn around. There are always indications that “things are about to change”. Yet it is always possible that in this instance, they are.

Second, although the editorial advocates negotiations with neighboring states, it does this in a decidedly American-centered, imperialist manner. The editors write that we should negotiate with neighboring states “to avoid excessive meddling in Iraq”. The editors seem to forget that we do not own Iraq. We are not the people who will have to live alongside the results of America’s “excessive meddling” for the next generation. We would lay a much firmer basis for our withdrawal, were we to include neighbors more positively in our plans, eliciting their ideas as to how we should withdraw and what they could do to help.

Iraq should have taught us the “doing things our way” can be disastrous. Let us try a new approach.


Iraqi Kurdistan: Democratic or Democratic Enough?

July 7, 2007

In a recent Op-Ed, Thomas Friedman proposed that if we lose out on all our other dreams in Iraq, we should at least make sure that we preserve Iraq’s Kurdistan as a bastion of democracy. He and others admit that it is not perfect, referring to its well-known high level of corruption.

I am afraid that corruption is only one of the failings of this enclave that is often pictured as a shining exception. Politically, the area is two areas, ruled for years by strong tribal leaders exercising what is essentially dictatorial powers. Half is run by the KDP under the Barzanis, the other half by the PUK under the Talabanis (Talibani is also the current President of Iraq — “President” being a largely ceremonial post). PUK and the KDP are actually modern versions of long-standing tribal alliances, alliances that have often fought each other as much as the outside world. Barzani even invited Saddam in to help him with one of these contests in the 1990s. Later, the two groups “made up”, at least temporarily, forming an alliance that is still maintained

The elections that have been held recently reflect absolute internal control within the subregions. As one reporter recently wrote here : “These areas should not be confused with democracies. They are one-party statelets little different from places like Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, both secular U.S.-aligned dictatorships run by and for a clique of clans unafraid to maintain their rule through force.”

I agree with Friedman that we should help preserve the level of security and welfare and progress that the Kurds have achieved. But we should be preserving it not so much as a example of our success in bringing democracy to the Middle East, but as an example of the level of achievement that it is rational at this point in the political development of the area to aspire to. Our mistake in Iraq was to imagine that the Iraqis wished to and could establish thriving democratic institutions. We might have done better to have helped Baath civilian and military leaders form a government based on Iraqi values and abilities, a government that we could have turned over the country to long before now. In accepting and defending the emerging Kurdish state or “autonomous province” in the old Soviet terminology, we would be demonstrating that we can work with partial solutions to the problem of governance, solutions that are more democratic than exist now in most of the area and yet fall short of, and will for many years continue to fall short of Western ideals.