With Iraqi political turmoil once more making headlines in the United States, an article in the National Journal has appeared with the headline, “Turns Out, Joe Biden Was Right about Dividing Iraq”.
The article uses as its point of departure the claim made by former defence secretary Robert Gates that Biden was wrong about every single important issue in US foreign policy. It then goes on to counter this by referring to the various “plans for Iraq” that Biden propagated as an oppositionist during the days of the Bush administration, particularly between 2006 and 2008. These plans are difficult to characterize because they changed a good deal over time as Biden’s ideas developed, and as a consequence they have also been misrepresented. In their minimum version, the plans involved an internationally sponsored conference that would somehow use the framework of the Iraqi constitution to subdivide the country into federal provinces. Biden claimed he kept an open mind about the eventual number of provinces. He “guessed” it would be three (a Kurdish, a Shiite Arab and a Sunni Arab one) but he gradually became more open-minded regarding the exact number and has often been misrepresented on this. Rather, the most noteworthy characteristics of the Biden approach to federalism in Iraq was that he expected a settlement that would take place as a one-off conference of political elites, and that it would be “comprehensive”, thus subdividing the entire country in federal entities.
Among the many problems with the Biden plan back then was that it usurped the provisions for federalism outlined in the Iraqi constitution adopted with US support in October 2005. The whole point of the federalism clauses in the Iraqi constitution is that development towards federal entities will be an uneven process, with different timelines for different parts of the country according to their level of economic and institutional development. It is specifically envisaged that individual provinces may prefer to continue to be ruled from Baghdad within a unitary state framework and with a degree if administrative decentralization. Biden’s plans would have violated all of this, meaning it would in practice be tantamount to rewriting the Iraqi constitution if implemented.
The argument that Biden was right after all, penned by James Kitfield, doesn’t occupy itself with such trivialities as the Iraqi constitution. Instead it asks whether not the best way to stop the current violence in Iraq is “separation”, by which the writer is clearly thinking of a three-way federalization involving Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.
How such an approach would achieve internal peace in the three regions is left largely unanswered. Does Kitfield really mean that if the Iraqi army hadn’t brought troublesome Shiite soldiers into Anbar, the Sunnis would have got along much better with foreign fighters and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organization? If so, is that a positive scenario? Wouldn’t a Sunni canton that had largely cut ties to Baghdad be immeasurably more susceptible to pan-Sunni propaganda emanating from Syria? Wouldn’t Anbar security forces – on the regional guard model from Kurdistan, controlled exclusively by Sunni commanders loyal to figures in a regional authority that would have earned their positions on basis of Sunni sectarian propaganda during the process of federalization – be an easier target for ISIL cooption than the current Iraqi army, with its mix of Sunni and Shiite commanders? Also, let’s not forget that Biden’s original proposal came as an alternative to Bush’s “surge” and would have meant a US withdrawal from Iraq around 2008, at a time when Al-Qaeda was on the rise.
It seems far more realistic to consider a Sunni canton in Iraq as a potential ISIL asset and a factor that might cement the ascendancy of ISIL in the Syrian opposition. It certainly seems a little reductionist to dismiss Sunnis willing to cooperate with Maliki as an “older generation”, as a former CIA officer commenting in the article seems to do. What about Anbar provincial council members that continue to work with Baghdad, or new political coalitions in the upcoming April parliament elections that feature substantial Sunni representation and are still signaling an interest in cooperating with Maliki?
Still today, eight years after the Biden plan for Iraq was launched, it remains difficult to comprehend what its proponents envisage in terms of specific changes in Iraq. The notion of “a natural Sunnistan” occurs in Kitfield’s article, although history has never seen such a thing. We’re just left with the primitive assumption that Sunnis will go along better simply because they are of the same sect.
If we look at developments in Iraq over the past few years historically, it is clear that before the sectarian pull of the Syria crisis became too overwhelming, there were always plenty of Sunnis prepared to deal with Maliki and put sectarian considerations in the background. Sunnis with such an orientation still exist, but their chances of political prominence decreases each time an article with a sectarian paradigm for understanding Iraqi politics of Kitfield’s calibre is published.