Is partition — whether soft or hard — the solution for Iraq? An increasing number of people seem to think so. And they’re pointing to Bosnia and the Dayton Peace Accords as the way to go. But Iraq isn’t Bosnia, which is why a Dayton-like solution isn’t likely to work. Instead, what may be worth a try is to convene a major peace conference, under international auspices, to work out a final political settlement of all the important political issues that continue to keep Iraqis apart.
Many things made success in Dayton possible, but three stand out. First, just a few months prior to the Dayton conference, the military tide in the brutal war turned sharply against the Serbs — who for three years had been on the offensive. A successful ground offensive by Croatian forces, coupled with a 3 week NATO bombing campaign, had put the Serbs on the defensive and made them more willing to settle for less than all-out victory. Second, the major outside powers who had fueled the Bosnian war (Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman) were ready to settle — and, importantly, able to deliver their Bosnian clients. Third, the United States had the power and the demonstrated will to enforce a settlement through the deployment of overwhelming force (60,000 NATO troops in all, for a country that’s one-sixth the size of Iraq).
None of these conditions apply in Iraq. The insurgency appears to be in a stalemate, with neither the insurgency nor the coalition or Iraqi forces making significant gains. Moreover, the violence besetting Iraq is now largely sectarian in nature — and none of the protagonists has yet been able or willing to use the level of violence that would be necessary to defeat (through ethnic cleansing or annihilation) the others. More importantly, no outside powers control or even have much influence over any of the warring factions in Iraq — and that includes Iran. The conflict will have to be resolved by the parties themselves; it cannot be resolved by anyone from the outside. Finally, the United States has been a party to the conflict for more than three years — it has neither the capacity nor the will to enforce, let alone, impose a lasting solution.
So partition — or any political solution — will have to come from within Iraq rather than from without. The political process set up two-and-a-half years ago to forge such a political solution has run its course — and it has failed. We had a return of Iraqi sovereignty and a transitional government. We had elections for an interim assembly. We had negotiations and popular approval of a new constitution. We had a national election in which more than 70% of the Iraqis participated. But none of this has resolved the fundamental political differences dividing the Iraqi people — or even created a clear Iraqi national identity on which to base a lasting solution.
Instead, the very political process that was designed to unify Iraq ended up dividing it further. The Sunnis boycotted the first election, and were shut out of the interim government. The constitutional referendum was overwhelmingly approved by the Kurds and Shias and overwhelmingly rejected by the Sunnis. Last December’s national elections saw the victory of sectarian parties and the defeat of secular national lists. And nearly five months later, we still have no government — of national unity or any other kind.
Is it too late to get the politics — on which everything in Iraq depends — on track? Most probably, which is indeed why the future is bleak. But before we conclude that there is no hope — and accept that Iraq’s future is a Hobbesian state of nature — it is worth trying one last time to reach a political settlement. Normal politics won’t do. Even if Iraq gets a unity government composed of ministers dedicated to advancing Iraqi rather than sectarian interests in the next two weeks (an unlikely prospect, to say the least), the most important issues dividing Iraqis would remain unresolved. These include such fundamental issues as how power is to be shared between the central government and the regional governments, who controls current and future oil revenues, how many security forces are allowed to exist and under whose control, how power is to be shared between the presidency, the government, and the national parliament, and what role religion will play in the judicial system. All of these issues remain unresolved, and until an agreement has been reached on every one of them that is acceptable to all the major parties, the roots of conflict remain.
To find out whether such an agreement can be arrived at through the force of argument rather than the force of violence, we need an extraordinary political process — one that is both time-limited and conveys a clear signal that our involvement in Iraq will end without a viable and lasting compromise among all the parties. This should involve a political conference, held under international auspices, in which all the major Iraqi leaders would convene in an effort to strike a final political deal on the political make-up of the Iraqi state — including on the key issues mentioned above. (A similar idea has been proposed by Larry Korb and Brian Katulis.) The effort should be overseen by an international mediator — someone like Lakhdar Brahimi, who helped negotiate the Bonn agreement that put Afghanistan back on track and proved crucial in resolving differences among Iraqis in the run-up to the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. It should be given a narrow time window — say, 14 days — to succeed. And it should be clear to all the parties that a failure to reach an agreement would mean the end of international involvement — including of American and other foreign troops — in Iraq. Equally important, it should be clear that in the event agreement is reached, the extent and nature of any international involvement would be decided by the parties themselves as part of any such agreement.
Ultimately, the future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people themselves. So far, they have been unable to agree on what that future should look like — nor have they really been given the responsibility to try. They should now be given that responsibility, and made to understand the true consequences for all Iraqis if they fail to build Iraq’s future together and instead destroy it by remaining apart.
Posted at TPMCafe on May 3, 2006 — 9:40 PM EST