TCS Daily

The Case for Partitioning Iraq

By Carroll Andrew - April 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Partitioning Iraq after June 30 deserves serious consideration. Usually, the argument in favor of partition is very pragmatic. Many of the worst cases of recent, organized violence -- Rwanda, Serbia, Chechnya, etc. -- had their roots in different ethnic populations forced to live together within a single state. The argument that we can head off some future campaign of ethnic cleansing by not forcing the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds of Iraq to live together in the first place should not be lightly dismissed. There are other arguments supporting partition, however, that must be considered by a world that claims to take ideas like freedom and democracy seriously.

The most commonly espoused partition plan calls for a three-way partition of the state formerly known as Iraq, a "Kurdistan" in the north, a "Shiastan" in the south, and a "Sunnistan" in between. This article proposes something different. Neither the American-led coalition, nor even the larger international community should determine the borders of a set of Iraqi successor states. The people of Iraq should be the ones to decide where partition lines are drawn. The people of Iraq should be the ones to decide if partition lines need to be drawn at all.

Here is the plan. Sovereignty will not come to Iraq all at once. On June 30, Iraq will be divided into provinces, or occupation zones -- at different times and different places, both labels will be appropriate. There will be more than three zones, there will be at least 25, maybe as many as 100. Each zone will evolve towards civil government at its own rate. Some zones will need to be overseen using the rules of outright military occupation of a hostile nation. Other zones will be able to quickly establish full home rule, complete civil government in all matters except foreign policy and military affairs. Over six months, let's see how many zones can produce a local government that can rule without slaughtering a significant percentage of its own population, or stoning women for committing adultery, or burning the foreign nationals providing electricity and water.

Zones demonstrating the ability to live peacefully will be migrated towards full home rule. When enough provinces reach complete home rule, they will have important decisions to make. If enough zones decided to band together, they can form a state of their own. (There will have to be a few basic rules about a minimum number of provinces, or a minimum total population, and/or territorial contiguousness required to form a state.) They are free to welcome into their state other provinces that reach full home rule at a future time. Multi-province successor states may even reserve the right to join with other multi-province successor states. Under this plan, the Iraqi people ultimately decide the shape of post-Hussein Iraq.

Partition by Popular Sovereignty

This plan -- partition by popular sovereignty -- corrects the American-led coalition's error of trying to impose democracy from the top down. Democracy is more than just an institutional and procedural framework -- the framework is a means to an end. People band themselves together into states to do things they cannot do alone. They agree to make individual sacrifices so that the group, as a whole, will be better off. Democracy helps insure that the actions undertaken in the name of the group do not abuse the individual too much. Are the people of post-Hussein Iraq ready and willing to band themselves together in this manner? Is an Iraqi Kurd willing to sacrifice some of his or her autonomy to help an Iraqi Sunni build reasonable civil structures? If an outside threat were to come from the direction of Iran, will an Iraqi Shiite defend the life and liberty of fellow Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, or join the cause of the Iranian invaders?

I do not know the answer to these questions, and I do not think that anyone really does. I do know that fast-forwarding to the assumption of one-state-at-any-price has stifled addressing these questions, both inside and outside of Iraq. If the would-be leaders of Iraq -- Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd -- are not making a convincing case about what the average Iraqi gets from a single state, other than the argument of "that's the way it's been for the last eighty years", then who is anyone outside of Iraq to demand that they be forced to live together? If Ayatollah Sistani cannot make a convincing case why the Shiite regions of Iraq should be linked to the Sunni and Kurdish regions -- what all sides get from the deal -- then why should they be linked? And if the Iraqi people of a place like Fallujah would rather kill Americans than work on building civil government, need anyone take their demands for control of civil government seriously? But why should their actions hold up the Kurds from governing themselves if they show themselves ready to run a civil, stable state?

The people of post-Hussein Iraq should be given maximum flexibility to ask these questions, and to make the best arrangements they can after they hear the answers. Without knowing how much of the Iraqi population is really willing to place loyalty to all of the people of Iraq above ethnic, tribal, or clan loyalty, neither the American-led coalition nor the wider international community should force individuals into a dangerously unstable governmental arrangement.

The dialogue, unfortunately, does not seem to be happening. The ironclad guarantee that there will be a single Iraq makes violent obstructionism an effective alternative to dialogue, hampering this necessary debate. Those with limited ability to persuade but great will to harm believe they can violently rout their opponents and prevail. In the one-state-at-any-price scenario, they may be correct. In the one-state-at-any-price scenario, they do not need to win, they just need to be the strongest faction standing amidst the chaos they create. To thwart the Machiavellian efficiency of this strategy, the outside world must make it clear that there will be no winner by default. If there is no broad agreement on how to form a single Iraqi state, there will be no single Iraqi state.

Partition via popular sovereignty provides the peaceful, silent majority an option for responding to violent and radical factions who do not want to see an Iraq governed for the benefit of all Iraqis. The short-term benefits that come from the local establishment of civil order are efficiently leveraged into a long-term advantage. Peaceful Iraqis can band together to protect themselves against radical militias and then freely, openly, and legitimately seek allies outside of Iraq who will help them grow. They can erect their own formal defenses against areas dominated by leaders who seek control rather than compromise. Leaders of the future Iraq -- or its successor states -- who cannot count on having a state handed to them must work towards persuasive unification as least as hard as they work towards violent domination.

Covering Popular Sovereignty

Now, perhaps the above description places too much blame on the contemporary Iraqi leadership. Perhaps the voices of Iraqi leaders who honestly seek to unify are drowned out by the violence of the extremists. One advantage of partition by popular sovereignty is its ability to amplify the voices of the unifiers.

To date, the American level of international civic and media engagement has not been up to the task of garnering relevant information about whether viable democratic leaders are emerging in Iraq. The American public has experienced the international version of basing decisions about municipal government solely on the reports of four-alarm fires and muggings and shootings that are reported during the local eleven o'clock news. In local politics, however, we have direct contact with the good that the city does, even if the news reports only the bad.

With respect to Iraq, remote in space, with primary information in a language that most Americans do not understand, there is very limited contact with the good. The public is almost entirely dependent on either major media or government reports, and both of these sources have failed to provide the American public with a coherent narrative. The American public, ultimately in control of the American military, ultimately charged with making some weighty decisions about whether to stay or go, is unable to get reliable information about whether there is reasonable hope for a peaceful future.

Announcing a plan of partition by popular sovereignty would immediately change this. The story of Iraq would no longer be one of strange foreigners living in chaos punctuated by mass outbreaks of violence. The story of Iraq would become a horse race story -- a narrative structure ideally suited to American media coverage.

On the nightly news and during State Department and Pentagon briefings, presenters would show a big colored map of Iraq, showing provinces with full home rule in blue, provinces mired in military occupation in red, and a few pastels for the provinces in between. Questions now nebulous would become more concrete. Is progress towards civil democracy being made? Compare the map now to the map a year ago. Are more regions moving towards full home rule? We must be doing some good in those regions. Are the regions in full home rule -- or conversely, the regions stuck in military occupation -- all in one particular region? Maybe those regions need to be broken away. Ultimately, the American public gets a better information structure to help its decision-making.

The "sophisticated" international community will, of course, howl at the suggestion of partition by popular sovereignty. The international community prefers that international borders stay static, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps the "sophisticated" international community prefers the one-state-at-any-price option because it allows potential future conflicts -- conflicts all too tragically foreseeable -- to be defined as internal matters. As the "sophisticated" international community has shown time and time again, even the most brutal organized violence can be ignored, so long as it is an internal matter. Ten years after Rwanda, the international community should be "sophisticated" enough to offer the people of Iraq something more than a promise that they will not be victims of ethnic violence unless it is violence perpetrated by legal residents of their home state.

Unless they freely choose to do so, people with wildly different visions of ideal governance should not be forced to work together because of eighty-year old map lines hastily drawn by colonial interlopers. The American coalition and the wider international community should give the people of Iraq an opportunity to build civil societies under the conditions where there is a fighting chance for success. A single state solution is not necessary for a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of post-Hussein Iraq. Democratic processes provide no guarantee that the people of Iraq will avoid bad choices, but they can be structured so that the poor choices of some do not scar the futures of all.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote about Hugo Chavez and the threat to democracy around the globe.


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