BREAKING UP IRAQ….Several people have recommended Peter Galbraith’s piece in Sunday’s New York Review of Books called “How to Get Out of Iraq.” So I read it.

Galbraith provides a long summary of what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong in Iraq, and after a couple of warnings that we may be completely screwed no matter what we do he spends the final third of his article suggesting a possible solution. This turns out to be a fleshed-out version of Leslie Gelb’s suggestion from last year to divide Iraq into three parts. The Kurds get the area in the north that they occupy now, the Sunnis get the central area, and the Shiites get the south.

Iraq, Galbraith believes, “is not salvageable as a unitary state” ? and as a former ambassador to Croatia he knows something about trying to salvage unitary states. Unfortunately, he also believes that “the problem of Iraq is that a breakup of the country is not a realistic possibility for the present.” His solution, therefore, is a sort of loose federation, where the three territories are about 90% autonomous, with a weak central government in charge of foreign affairs, monetary policy, and not much else.

I was skeptical of this idea when Gelb proposed it in a stronger form, mainly because there’s no oil in the central Sunni region:

Giving the Sunni state a permanent claim on oil wealth from two other countries just isn’t realistic in the long term, while forced destitution would create an insanely enraged anti-American state smack in the middle of present-day Iraq. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s not clear how Galbraith’s loose federation makes this any more workable: he acknowledges that “some sharing of oil revenues would be essential,” but doesn’t suggest how to make that happen. After all, with a weak central government and no U.S. presence to force the issue, how long would it be before the Kurds and the Shiites simply cut the Sunnis off? Unfortunately, this kind of hazy thinking then becomes a pattern.

Under his plan, the Kurds are “more likely” to see advantages if they feel secure. Shiites, however, “strongly support the idea that petroleum should be owned by the respective regions,” a problem that is mentioned but then goes unaddressed. “We can hope” that the Sunnis will become more moderate if they are offered semi-autonomy. If U.S. troops disengage from the south, this “may mean” the south would be less overtly anti-American.

In the Sunni triangle, “one hope” is for elections to produce a set of leaders who can restore order and end the insurrection. What’s more, “with skilled diplomacy” the United States or the United Nations might be able to arrange for a more liberal regime in Baghdad than would exist in the south.

You get the idea: there’s a lot of things in this plan that seem to be backed up by little more than hope. In fact, Galbraith himself pretty much admits this, and further admits that even if his plan works it won’t exactly be a dream come true. Essentially, he seems to believe that it’s just the least worst of a bad bunch of options.

Unfortunately, he may be right, and for that reason my skepticism toward his proposal may be unfair. After all, I suspect the real question is whether it’s possible for us to impose any kind of political structure on Iraq that’s likely to stick once we leave. I doubt it. Which means we really have only two choices: stay in Iraq for a long time ? five or ten years ? or else get out and let a civil war sort things out. Galbraith’s plan is probably little more than a fig leaf for the latter option, but maybe that’s the only choice we have left.