Fantasies of the Oh So Serious Set
One of our favorite oh so serious people is at it again. Michael O’Hanlon of the amazing high flying Iraq Touring (or should we say Green Zone touring) Pentagon PR team – has written a paper arguing for the partition of Iraq. Since this appears to be a new favorite scheme (and was supported by Dr. Porter rather strongly in our Blue America discussion yesterday) it seems like a good time to share the thoughts of an actual expert on Iraq and the partition idea.
Enter Reidar Visser – an actual expert on the regional aspects of Iraq and its history. Visser is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and specializes in the Middle East and issues of regionalism and national structures. His publications are available at his website Historiae. (I’ve quoted at length from Dr. Visser’s writings over the past year so everyone can read some solid analysis of this issue – Visser provides a solid response and he deserves to be heard.)
The Partition idea began to gain traction last year amongst Democratic leaning, “liberal” pundits and really took off with the publication of Peter Galbraith’s “The End of Iraq.” Visser reviewed Galbraith’s work for the History News Network and warned of the danger of this new “liberal” thinking taking hold amongst US policy circles. Galbraith’s argument for partition is based in his experience in Iraq but as Visser notes: “it also becomes clear that his Iraqi contacts follow a highly biased pattern, where Kurdish elites (plus Ahmad Chalabi and a few other secularists) seem to dominate.“
Galbraith writes at length of his experiences in Kurdistan – an account Visser describes as: “a blunt and autobiographical account of how a US intellectual became deeply engaged in fuelling Kurdish ideas about breaking ranks with the rest of Iraq. In considerable detail Galbraith explains how he personally fostered many of the specific Kurdish demands for federalism, including principles which in one form or another would later find their way into the current Iraqi constitution.”
Galbraith is at pains to render Iraq as an “artificial” and highly fissile construct. Indeed, he accuses his political opponents of “a misreading of Iraq’s modern history” (p. 206). But as soon as he moves beyond his particular area of expertise – the Kurdish north – the narrative becomes less convincing and the arguments more strained. For instance, Galbraith on two occasions reiterates the now widespread but highly erroneous notion that current ethno-religious divisions in Iraq strongly correlate to the old administrative organization of the Ottoman Empire: Mosul was supposedly “Kurdish”, Baghdad “Sunni”, and Basra “Shiite” …
In reality, however, Mosul was essentially a mixed-race province, whereas Baghdad, though home to a large Sunni community, was probably the largest Shiite province of the Ottoman Empire – with its borders extending as far south as today’s Muthanna governorate and with all the rural territory surrounding the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala solidly Shiite, Baghdad was actually far more of a Shiite point of gravity than was Basra (which politically was Sunni-dominated). This in turn means that there was never any such close fit between ethno-religious and administrative maps as that suggested by Galbraith, and that Iraq has in fact a far longer record of ethno-religious coexistence than he seems prepared to admit.
In the Fall of last year, as Joe Biden got really wound up with his “Plan”, Visser wrote a particularly good analysis which pointed out the serious flaws of this approach:
A few days ago, an angry voice could be heard on television: “Like heck we can’t tell the Iraqis what to do.” This was Joseph Biden, the Democratic senator! Yes, it is probably true that, if the United States seriously wishes to enforce a division of Iraq – by circumventing the Iraqi constitution – it has the military capability to do so. But it would be a tragic outcome of the supposed democratization of Iraq if Washington should choose to exit by neo-imperialistically imposing a particular state structure on the country. It would alienate huge sections of the Iraqi population. It would be a gross provocation to most of Iraq’s neighbors, who view a tripartite federation as a particularly brittle state structure and a powder keg in terms of potential regional instability. And it would be the ultimate gift to al-Qaida – who would finally get the manifest evidence they have been craving in order to back up their conspiracy theory of the US as a pro-Zionist force bent on subdividing the Middle East into weak and sectarian statelets. Senator Biden would do well to consider the long-term damage to American interests that would follow from such reactions before he annexes Basra to the Middle Euphrates, merges Diyala and Kut, and rips the heart out of Mosul.
And now we have O’Hanlon and Edward P. Joseph, Visiting Scholar and Professorial Lecturer, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University trying once again to impose their vision on the reality of Iraq:
But what a plan! In “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” Joseph and O’Hanlon plunge into the modalities of bringing about “the organised movement of two to five million Iraqis”, no less, in order to create a decentralised state based on three ethnic communities. There is no question about the number – it has to be three. In fact, the authors are deeply worried that the Iraqi constitution with its protection of Baghdad as a separate entity (constitutionally, the Iraqi capital is not allowed to become part of larger federal regions) may create problems with regard to the consistent implementation of their own ethnic logic; they therefore demand that the capital region be partitioned too – with the Tigris river recommended as the most suitable partition line. The absence of popular support among Iraqis (they themselves acknowledge that “Sunni and Shiite Arabs have traditionally opposed partition, hard or soft”) does not seem to deter them at all; instead they choose to focus on the “comparable” example of Bosnia-Herzegovina, “where one of us worked extensively”.
On pages 9 to 11, Joseph and O’Hanlon (who in 2006 complained loudly in the US press after having been marginalised in the sessions of the Iraq Study Group) enumerate in greater detail the supporters of their plan. They appear to be, Joseph, O’Hanlon, most Kurds, and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite politician. The authors are too modest: they could have added al-Qaida, which would welcome this kind of federation as a permanent scar on Iraq that would prove to the whole world how “Western crusaders are intent on dividing the Muslims”,…
What then follows in the section on “Implementing Soft Partition” should have come with some kind of warning to the reader. Here, using cool academic language, the authors review the nuts and bolts of relocating somewhere between 2 and 5 million Iraqis in order to create new ethnic federal entities. Snippets from this part of the report probably speak best for themselves: “we advocate where possible dividing major cities along natural boundaries” (p. 16); “on the actual day of the relocation operation, Iraqi and US-led coalition forces would deploy in sufficient numbers to look for snipers, cover the flanks of the civilian convoys, inspect suspicious vehicles for explosives and conduct similar tasks” (p. 17); and finally, on p. 24, “this [internal border] control system would place some burdens on Iraq’s internal trade and other aspects of its economy. It would complicate the efforts of individuals to cross from one region to another to visit family and friends. For the most part these burdens would be bearable. For individuals or businesses that need to make frequent crossings across Iraq’s new internal borders, or those willing to pay for the privilege, an EZ pass system [sic] might be developed to expedite movements for those with important and regular business to conduct.”
As Visser notes in today’s NYT Week in Review:
“despite arguments by those in favor of partition, “Iraq has no tradition of being compartmentalized into neat, sectarian entities,” except for a relatively brief period between 1880 and World War I.
“For long periods before the 1880s, the Ottoman Empire governed these lands as one,” he said. “It is untrue that the three Ottoman provinces that became Iraq in 1921 were characterized by clear sectarian identities.”
The conclusion to his critique of the O’Hanlon paper ties it all together as he describes the fantasies of these oh so serious people which conflict with the desires of the Iraqi people:
But in general, this popular dimension is only rarely reflected in media reports from Iraq, which instead tend to focus on propaganda by sectarian political parties that have good communications skills and are able to spin small gatherings of their diehard supporters as “massive demonstrations”. The problem is highlighted by these authors themselves: Joseph and O’Hanlon assert (p. 8) that there is “strong evidence” that “violence is steadily eroding national unity” – with a footnote to a short article by American journalist Sabrina Tavernise! Instead of engaging in this kind of contrived referencing they and other partitionists should take a long look at their own arguments, deal honestly with their most glaring denials of Iraqi facts (ranging from the mameluke government of Baghdad in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to the cross-sectarian support seen in April 2007 for Shadha Hassun, the Iraqi contestant in the Arab “Star Academy”), and then ask whether there is anything left at all. The US invasion of Iraq was based on lies; it would do irreparable damage to the entire Middle East as well as American interests in the region if also the mechanics of withdrawal should be informed by fabricated evidence.
(added emph throughout is mine)
h/t to Jerid and thanks to mfi for introducing me to Visser’s work.