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The Key to an Honorable Exit from Iraq

Now that the Obama administration has redoubled its military focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is worth remembering that Iraq is by no means a completed or “won” war. One hundred and forty-two thousand coalition troops are still deployed, mainly in a peacekeeping capacity.

It’s true that overall violence has remained low since the surge. However, the current Iraqi government, which just concluded a successful provincial election, operates today on what can only be described as a temporary truce agreement among various sectarian parties, and the future of this fragile country is by no means certain. In six weeks, the U.S. will begin an estimated sixteen-month withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, so the conversation turns, albeit at a much more muted level than before, to the subject of exit strategies.

Dissent magazine is hosting a written symposium on this question, and one submission by a participant who has long devoted himself to the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath is a necessary read. Brendan O’Leary is an international constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan National Assembly and Government (KRG), who, having matured in the cask of Northern Ireland, is an expert on federalism and ethno-religious power sharing arrangements in post-colonial societies.

(To get a sense of O’Leary’s cogence in years past, read his brilliant rebuttal to the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq.)

In 2005, O’Leary helped edit a collection of essays, published under the title The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan, which elegantly tied the historical struggle of the largest stateless people of the Middle East to their current ascendancy in post-Saddam Iraq. A strong defender of the Iraqi constitution, for which he also served as a Western consultant, he has been arguing for years that the political salvation of the country — the avoidance of genocidal civil war and partition — lay in this overlooked or dismissed founding document, ratified by four out of five voters in 2005 in a UN-certified election and composed by the elite of the Shiite party now known as ISCI (the Iraqi Supreme Council of Islam, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a name-change that is as significant as the precipitous decline of daily violence in the country).

Together with Kurdish leaders, the majority Muslim sect of Iraq placed every check on a centralized Iraq, which under Saddam had enabled every act of brutality visited upon religious and tribal minorities. Kurdistan, it was understood and then codified by the Iraqi framers, is an autonomous region with its own functioning legislature, judiciary, military, and industry, and it ought to be allowed to continue as such in order for Iraq’s largest non-Arab bloc to consent to any viable reconstructed Iraqi state. The constitution also allowed for all eighteen provinces — excluding Baghdad and Kirkuk — to combine into larger regions if they so choose, but if they do not, then the provinces are still entitled to significant rights of self-government.

As O’Leary writes:

The Constitution, in short, permits either a symmetrical federation, in which other regions are built with the same powers as Kurdistan, or an asymmetrical federation, in which the existing provinces of Arab-majority Iraq, by comparison with the KRG, choose to grant greater authority to the Baghdad government.

He adds that a common misreading of the 2009 provincial elections has it that the federalist idea was undercut by the victory of centralists, a fact owing more to the incompetence of the ISCI, which was effectively branded a handmaiden of Tehran. But it is important to remember that no elections were even held in the key region of Kurdistan or the contentious province of Kirkuk, which together make up a fifth of the entire country.

Furthermore, “[i]n no province did any Arab party or list win 50 percent of the vote, and in only one did any list come close,” meaning that power sharing, and an emphasis on local representation, remains the most attractive option for Arab Iraqis.

(Baathist holdovers and Sadrists who turned out to vote last February were not declaring their willingness to cooperate with each other in a pluralist, democratic Iraq; what “they promise is little more than competition over who will organize the first coup” — a reality that should be burned into Hillary Clinton’s cortex.)

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom in Washington dictates that the U.S.’s parting diplomatic gesture should be the encouragement of a centralizing strongman in the shape of Nouri al-Maliki. Once seen as an ineffectual milquetoast, Maliki has since emerged as an aspiring dictator who thinks little of violating Iraq’s constitution by blocking mandates on natural resources, on Kirkuk, and other disputed territories. He has also tried to raise an illegal militia, beholden to himself and composed of ex-Baathists and Kurd rejectionists, to war against the legitimate KRG. Distrusted and unpopular at home — his list received no more than forty percent of the vote in each Shiite-majority province — Maliki’s political future should not be seconded by chancelleries abroad, particularly by the one trying to organize the safest and most responsible departure from Iraq.

Here is O’Leary:

It will be far better for the Obama administration to organize an early exit before any Baghdad-based government becomes too strong. In the interim, it should render military and policing assistance to the provinces and to the Kurdistan region — which would be lawful — rather than to federal forces. The reason is simple: to consolidate a balance of power. The weaker a Baghdad government is, the more it must bargain with and accommodate the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and other minorities, and the more it must avoid naked partisanship on behalf of any community. The weaker it is, the greater the prospects for province-based federalism to strengthen itself in Arab Iraq.

The Bush administration’s gains on the battlefield as a result of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, al-Qaeda’s self-defeating ideology, and the Sunni Arab Awakening have been partly eroded by its folly at the State Department. Some of the bad thinking was understandable given the fratricidal doomsday scenario that played out in Iraq between 2005 and 2006. And some of it was just stupid: Blocking Kurdistan’s use of Article 112 to independently develop its natural resources prohibited eager U.S. oil and gas companies from investing in the most stable and dynamic sliver of the fertile crescent.

The modern state of Iraq is an artificial British construct held together by the exigencies of the cold war and a homegrown variety of totalitarianism that borrowed from the playbook of European fascism. It would be a huge mistake not to consider the cultural continuities of pre-World War I Mesopotamia in anticipating the country’s future. As Joseph Biden, in his capacity as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advocated at the time, the sanest U.S. policy for Iraq is and always will be a pro-constitution policy, which takes these continuities seriously. This is true not just because, as O’Leary writes, “it is legally and democratically better, but because it will enable a more judicious and just U.S. exit.”

The Kurds should be more empowered, not further diminished, as we bid farewell. A good faith effort on the part of the Obama administration would be the support of Article 140 of the constitution, which will allow Kirkuk — known as the “Jerusalem of the Kurds” — to unify with the KRG in an act of reconciliation and atonement for Saddam’s gruesome “Arabization” policy of the 1980’s. Facts, but also opinions, on the ground are in sympathy with this long-delayed project, and implicit in it is the enfranchisement of Kirkuk’s Turkomen, Arab Muslim, and Christian populations, something the Kurds have sworn to uphold.

There is also an historic debt to discharge in the bolstering Iraqi federalism. You may have noticed that following the U.S. invasion, it was not the Kurds who looted the Baghdad Museum or blew up their co-religionists with roadside bombs; they were too busy rebuilding a shattered nation. It is not realism but cynicism that would make it a U.S. priority to further undermine a perennial yet oft-betrayed ally, and one that, we can be sure, will be first on the scene to stay any incipient disaster that might befall Iraq after we’ve gone.