The Corner

Iraq alternatives?

This Economist editorial (subscription required) is a pretty good wet-blanket on some of the ideas out there:

It is no bad thing to explore new ideas. The trouble is that none of these examples stands up to scrutiny.

Take partition. This is not a mad idea. A case can be made that Britain’s creation in the 1920s of a single political entity called Iraq was a failure from the start, and that the only thing that can hold it together is an iron fist like Saddam Hussein’s. So if the choice is between another dictatorship or endless civil war, partition begins to look attractive. If not a mad idea, however, partition is a bad idea. It would be neither neat nor bloodless: Kurds, Shias and Sunnis are intermingled in many areas, including Baghdad. And the precedents are awful. In Palestine, India and Yugoslavia partition led not just to war and forced migration but to a series of wars. And there is, again, the complication of neighbours. Independence for the Kurds is anathema to Turkey and Iran. A Shia state on its border, adjacent to where its own restive Shias live, would horrify Saudi Arabia. And what would the Sunnis in Iraq’s centre gain once partition cut them off from Iraq’s oil riches?

As for America being less fastidious about democracy, this sounds commendably realistic. Iraqis living in daily fear of murder certainly have bigger things to worry about than a low score from Freedom House. The snag is that even if it seemed briefly possible after the fall of Mr Hussein to impose a friendly strongman in his place, that looks out of the question now. Having tasted democracy and voted in their millions, Iraqis will not be so easily cowed again by one man from one group. The present policy—hammering out a power-sharing agreement between elected groups—may be challenging but is more realistic than a belated quest for dictatorship lite.

On closer inspection, in fact, many of the competing ideas masquerading in Washington as big new ideas turn out to be small refinements of the existing policy. One such is the idea for partition lite—a federal arrangement with a weak centre and strong regions. That is pretty much what the existing constitution allows and is already the subject of fierce negotiation between the parties. A more genuinely new idea is for America to seek a reconciliation with its foes in Syria and Iran, in the hope that the active involvement of these powers will somehow stabilise the country. But this smacks of desperation: Iran is already deeply engaged in Iraq, on the side of the Shias. That is exactly what enrages and frightens the Sunnis.


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