All The More Reason


The Galbraith-Biden Plan
April 13, 2007, 1:24 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Joe Biden, Peter Galbraith

Senator Joseph Biden is a relatively unhopeful Democrat Party nominee for the US presidency in 2008 (you can see his website, together with louche ‘tie at half-mast’ front-page photo, here). Unlike many of his Democrat colleagues, though, he has formulated a strategy for Iraq that doesn’t simply involve withdrawing American troops, ‘cutting and running’ and leaving the country to the wolves.

The idea, which draws heavily, if not exclusively, upon The End of Iraq, the tremendous book by Ambassador Peter Galbraith (reviewed approvingly by Christopher Hitchens in Slate), is to  allow the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities to form their own autonomous regions within Iraq,  rather than insisting, as does the present administration, that the country remain a non-ethnic, non-sectarian and unitary ‘Iraqi’ state.

Even if the Bush administration’s goals were desirable, the bus to get there has already been missed. The wish for a secular, unitary state is laudable; who would not rejoice if it could be said that all those currently blowing eachother apart self-identified as ‘Iraqis’ rather than as devotees of a particular sect? However it fails to recognize that at present, the north of the country – the Kurdish area – is already, under the Iraqi constitution, an autonomous and de facto independent region. For the Kurds to have stayed within the Iraqi construct at all is something of a miracle given that this construct has only ever been a vehicle for the racist oppression of its own people. In its role as makeweight during the drafting of the constitution, Kurdish delegates were able, in effect, to codify their people’s separation from the Iraqi state whilst avoiding the politically volatile step of declaring full blown independence. As a result, the region retains its own military (the Iraqi army is forbidden from entering Kurdish territory without prior authorisation from the Kurdish Assembly) and Kurdish law is deemed normatively superior to that of the Iraqi constitution.

Nevertheless, the ‘Kurdish solution’ should not just be seen as special pleading for an important American ally. It is a solution contained within the consitution, and open to any of Iraq’s communities. Any group of more than three provinces may apply to become an autonomous region with its own Regional Guard, devolved legislative powers, and the right to revenue from newly developed (but not pre-existing) oil fields. In the short-term, the result would most likely be a ‘Shiastan’ in the south, a Sunni area in the infamous ‘triangle’, and the maintenance of the Kurdish autnomous region in the north. The country’s existing oil wealth would be pooled centrally, acting as a glue to keep the country as a single, if strongly federal, state. In the longer term, however, a managed and (hopefully) amicable divorce between the three areas could result.

The Biden Plan is flawed in a number of respects. It has no prescription for Baghdad, a toxic mixed-community city that could, legally, form a region on its own, and it proposes the total withdrawal of American forces from the region, as opposed to a withdrawal to Kurdistan with a ‘watching brief’ – something that would be welcomed by the Kurdish authorities – mooted by Galbraith. However, unlike the Iraq Study Group Report, behind which a motley collection of Kissingerian Republicans and parish-minded Democrats hid, these proposals at least show a modicum of respect for the will of the Iraqi people. Whereas James Baker III would have Iraq sold to the highest bidder in the region, Galbraith and Biden aknowledge the seldom-acknowledged fact that the Iraqi constitution – an ingenious and artul document which some 78% of the Iraqi electorate approved – will contain the germ of any eventual solution.

Michael P

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