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.)