Biden gets real on Iraq

Reorganizing Iraq along ethnic and religious lines would be the best hope for that country's stability.

Realism in foreign policy traditionally has been associated with Republicans. But in dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, it is a key Democrat who is proposing a realistic approach. The Bush administration and other Republicans, by contrast, still cling to the idealistic notion of achieving a functioning nation made up of ethno-religious groups who despise one another.

Recently, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), along with Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, proposed reorganizing Iraq along ethnic-religious lines. Three autonomous regions corresponding to the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites would run their own affairs, while the national government would be responsible for border defense, foreign affairs, and oil revenues. Baghdad, with its mixed population, would be a federal zone.

The Biden/Gelb proposal reflects the reality that, in certain circumstances, centralized nations composed of competing ethnic or religious groups are unworkable. Democratic institutions fail because each group can effectively veto legislation. The citizenry tends to think in terms of group rights instead of individual rights. Rather than fostering the development of civil liberties, any movement toward democracy results in people focusing on their new rights as members of a particular sect. Each major political party advances the agenda of an ethnic or religious group and only secondarily, if at all, takes sensible economic or good-government principles into account. No political party addresses the needs of the country as a whole.

In addition to Iraq now, this was the situation in Yugoslavia after its creation in 1918. The government was unable to function because agreement on vital national issues could not be reached. Continuous stalemate finally was broken by a royal dictatorship that came to power in 1929. After World War II, Marshal Tito, through his charismatic personality and iron fist, was able to quell sectarian movements, but after he died and communism waned, Yugoslavia collapsed amid civil war.

It is no coincidence that less-developed countries composed of multiple ethno-religious groups, like Iraq, are often governed by brutal dictators. Such groups yearn for the freedom to speak their own language, practice their own religion, or enact their own laws. Leaders willing and able to brutally suppress such freedoms prevent such countries from breaking apart.

Nations are normally created out of a collection of people who for the most part share the same ethnic background, culture, and political goals. When Great Britain created Iraq in 1920, none of that was taken into account. The borders were drawn with no attempt to make it an ethnically or religiously homogeneous state.

Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, there is an opportunity to finally right Britain's wrong. It is time to redraw the area's borders based on a more sensible and realistic recognition of the geographic location of ethno-religious groups. Since the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds cannot get along with each other, the best solution is to separate them. Otherwise, the status quo of political stalemate, insurgent activity, and economic deterioration likely will continue indefinitely.

The Biden/Gelb proposal, among other things, is an effort to prevent large-scale civil war in Iraq. Civil wars commonly occur when a subgroup, fed up with being denied freedoms, declares independence. Fighting ensues when the central government tries to exert its authority. Under the Biden/Gelb proposal, the Iraqi central government would in effect give the subgroups the freedom to enact their own laws.

However, fighting also can ensue when certain people find themselves on the wrong side of the new border, cut off from the main territory of their own subgroup. International peacekeepers can help remedy this problem.

Countries composed of large, hostile ethno-religious groups are almost always more problem-prone than homogeneous countries. The evidence is stark: most wars throughout the world are civil wars involving various sects. Often it is impossible to reconcile differences between sects, so giving them their own separate administrative regions is the best solution.

To be sure, given the penchant for violence among many Iraqis, establishing new administrative regions may not be a cure-all. But it would be the best hope for eventual stability.

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