PARTITION….Jonathan Rauch dubs Joe Biden the “grownup” in the Democratic presidential race because he has a plan for Iraq. Here’s Biden’s plan: create a federal state in which there are separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions and the central government has only limited responsibilities (for example, distributing oil revenue and guarding the borders). But even though he approves, Rauch understands the downsides:
Even an inexpert Washington columnist can come up with a dozen reasons the Biden plan might fail. What if Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds can’t agree on a regional framework, or on a revenue-sharing deal? What about Baghdad and other mixed areas? What if the autonomous regions go to war? What if the Shiite or Sunni region degenerates into intrasectarian chaos? What if Iran colonizes the Shiite region?
A conversation with Biden’s aide yielded answers that were plausible but iffy. The more relevant answer, however, is the one Biden gave in a speech at the Brookings Institution [PDF] in February: “To those who disagree with my plan, I have one simple question: What is your alternative?”
That’s not relevant. It’s fatuous. The fact that all of the other alternatives in Iraq are bad doesn’t mean that Biden’s alternative is good. It just means that all the other alternatives are bad. So let’s recap those alternatives: First it was the movement conservatives who had a plan to make Iraq into a flat-tax paradise. It didn’t work. Then it was the democracy promoters, who thought purple fingers would do the trick. It didn’t work. Then the key talking point changed to security: “When they stand up, we’ll stand down.” It didn’t work. Then it was the surge, designed to provide breathing space for political reconciliation. It didn’t work. Now it’s “soft partition.”
But the plain fact is that support for Biden’s version of federalism has no support in Iraq and no support within the region. The only people who like it are disillusioned Americans desperate for something that maintains the fiction that America is somehow in control of Iraq’s fate. But regardless of whether we were ever in control, even at the start, we certainly aren’t now. We simply don’t have the leverage to force regionalism on Iraq, not even if we — figuratively or otherwise — “get allies and neighboring countries on board, and lock Iraqis in a room.”
There are dangerous delusions at work here. The first is that we have to do something because if we withdraw from Iraq the Middle East will inevitably end up in a massive region-wide war. In fact, there’s little empirical evidence to support this apocalyptic view. The second is that we can force partition on unwilling actors. But what makes us think so? We haven’t been able to force action on a wide variety of much simpler issues. The third is that if we did somehow force partition, the results are likely to be better than simple withdrawal. Unfortunately, the arguments on this score are as simplistic as the ones that preceded all our previous plans. In reality, civil war is neither more nor less likely in a federal Iraq than in a unitary Iraq.
Biden is pretending he can “solve” Iraq through yet another map-drawing exercise. If we could power up our Ouija boards, Sykes and Picot would tell us this was very “grownup” indeed. The rest of us, though, should recognize this for what it is: yet another plan that will eventually morph into an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. On that score, it’s time to grow up.