You would expect more from serious contenders for the U.S. presidency. Yet in outlining their plans for Iraq – the most difficult foreign policy challenge facing this country – all the major candidates have called for is some version of our current course, or withdrawal.
Those are not answers – and the voters know it. With violence in Iraq receding (relatively, and at least for now), the major candidates have the perfect pretext to give you their vision of a political solution. Yet their silence has been stunning.
The best (or least worst) option in Iraq is a federation of three regions, based on internal migration patterns already under way – with a strong central government that gains meaningful authority through the distribution of oil revenues.
The most chaotic form of de facto partition is happening, rapidly – and getting worse. Iraqis, fearing for their lives, are voting with their feet. While the Iraqi government exaggerates the numbers returning, the United Nations says 2 million Iraqis have fled the country with more right behind them. Most are from the moderate middle class, essential to reconciliation and economic stability.
An additional 2.4 million people, from nearly all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups, are internally displaced. All are migrating toward more hospitable and homogeneous regions – the Shiites from the center to the south, the Sunni from the south to the upper center (especially Anbar province), and the Kurdish firmly ensconced in the north (to the anxiety of Turkey, deeply concerned about secession). At the current rate of 100,000 a month, an additional 1 million Iraqis could be displaced this year.
The leading presidential candidates – one of whom will inherit this ill wind – have been struck speechless about what the world community and civil society should do to stabilize this process, and minimize further loss of Iraqi and coalition lives.
Give Sen. Joseph Biden credit. The Delaware Democrat has been pushing a version of Iraqi partition for a year. In one of the most interesting match-ups of the season, he pitched the idea during a joint appearance in Iowa with GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. They compelled the Senate to pass a similar resolution with a bipartisan, 75-23 majority. If ideas counted for more than cash, these senators would be contenders.
(Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., voted yes, but operating in everything-to-lose mode, she has been silent on the subject. Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., didn’t vote. They and John Edwards, former Democratic senator from North Carolina, andRepublicans Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Mitt Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor, have been remarkably quiet about it.)
The Biden plan isn’t perfect. It calls for partition with a weak central government in Iraq, which was denounced by Arab and Iraqi nationalists as imperialist. But it was an idea.
Yet somehow, even with all of that prompting, the leading candidates on the campaign trail have gotten away with a striking lack of debate or comment – reflecting a lack of creativity, conviction or courage. And to date, journalists have largely let them off this hook.
It is possible our would-be presidents have reflexively adopted the conclusion of the Iraq Study Group, headed by longtime Republican adviser James Baker. The group rang alarm bells over the prospect of partition – arguing it would destabilize the region, and presumably because it would signal American failure. But on our current path, the odds of real success by any credible standard are far from clear.
It’s also possible that, with the situation on the ground recently (if relatively) more stable, the Bush administration has been tacitly driving, while not publicly endorsing, a federalist outcome. Though policy staffers at the State Department won’t characterize a federalist Iraq as an explicit goal, they have gone to considerable lengths to regionalize reconstruction assistance and resources, to reflect internal migration already under way, and limit loss of life.
What we learned in Bosnia – after far more disproportionate and deadly ethnic cleansing – was the stabilizing influence of what ultimately became a regionalized federation. The most effective proposals for Iraq will not walk or talk like an argument for breaking up the country. They’ll perish the word “partition” – and call for an Iraqi federation with provincial regions to be determined by the Iraqi parliament, and a strong central government with real economic and legal leverage.
Today, Iraqis are exercising self-determination in its most desperate form. An attempt at nation-building has become an extended police action, with no plausible end in sight. Here is an opportunity for the West, together with the Iraqi government and the Arab League, to apply leadership in the region by creating a federal union – consistent with the Iraqi Constitution – that will save lives, give meaningful authority to a nascent unity government, avert even deeper chaos within and across Iraq’s borders, and hold Iraq together as one nation.
It is time for the presidential contenders to set aside concerns about the political provenance of such ideas – or if they have more and better, to offer them up. Candidates who break out on this issue, and offer voters a real plan, will earn confidence and credibility in this early and indecisive race.
Originally appeared in the Monitor on December 2, 2007