Fighting Words

Mesopotamia Split?

Considering Peter Galbraith’s proposal for Iraq.

Wised-up opinion in Washington holds that the Republicans are being unsmart in opposing the Democratic attempt to impose a timeline on American withdrawal from Iraq. By resisting this demand, it is argued, the GOP insists on assuming the whole responsibility for the war, when it could have said to the opposition: All right, have it your own way; we will adopt your timetable and be ready to blame you if it goes wrong. But by opposing the proposal, the president’s supporters are apparently shouldering the entire burden.

This analysis only works if you think of politics as a process of maneuvering, whereby each party hopes to reap the benefit of the other party’s mistake in having either “lost” Iraq or in having “acquired” it in the first place. It also only works if you make the assumption that there is no middle policy between “surging” or “scuttling.” As it happens, though, the Democrats know perfectly well that this is untrue, and it’s time that they were called on the point.

The most senior Democrat to have called, the earliest and the longest, for the removal of Saddam Hussein is Peter Galbraith. For many years a senior staffer on the Senate foreign relations committee and during the Balkan wars a highly visible ambassador in Zagreb who urged the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic, he was exposing American complicity with Saddam’s genocide at a time when Republican administrations considered Baghdad a strategic ally. His work on pushing for the passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act and in drawing attention to what was happening during the Anfal campaign in northern Iraq was exemplary.

His latest book, The End of Iraq, is notable for two things. First, it gives one of the most acute and intimate portraits of the Bush administration’s catastrophic mismanagement of the intervention. Second, it proposes a serious program for a radical change in policy. What are our irreducible objectives in Iraq? To prevent the country and its enormous resources from falling into the hands of the enemies of civilization—most notably al-Qaida—and to protect what remains of the secular and democratic alliance that we once hoped might emerge to govern the situation. We made—both parties, not just the Bush administration—some serious promises to Iraqi democrats down the years. It would be morally impossible, as well as politically suicidal, to walk away from them.

Given the apparently irreversible fracturing of Iraq into at least three confessional and ethnic parts, an outcome that may have been innate in the Iraqi state, we cannot hope—so runs his argument—to police or manage the sectarian horror show that has been launched by the parties of god. And we run the grave risk of being drawn into it. However, there is a possible way of saving some of our credit. If we reconfigure our military presence to the north, in the three Kurdish provinces, we can reduce the size of ourselves as a target, remain just “over the horizon” in the case of an al-Qaida challenge, be available “case by case” in the event of any appeal from the Iraqi government for help, and protect the most outstanding of our achievements in the country, which is the emergence of a relatively peaceful, democratic, and prosperous region under coalition auspices.

By definition, this would mean a much smaller and leaner force, in an area where so far no American soldier has been killed by hostile action. (See, if you like, my report from Kurdistan in the current Vanity Fair.)

It would associate us with the secular and democratic Iraqis and Kurds, many of whom continue to witness for such values in the face of a terrifying campaign of torture and murder by the rival theocrats. And it would remove the suspicion that we are being “spun,” or manipulated, by Iraqi factions who hope to use U.S. soldiers to crush their own private enemies. It would, finally, be congruent with values that are shared across American politics—such as the defense of self-determination and the protection of minorities from massacre and persecution, which was part of Operation Provide Comfort with which the world reacted to Saddam’s barbarism in 1991.

I have my reservations about Galbraith’s proposal, because I think that partition is always and everywhere a defeat and often leads to more wars and more partitions. But I strongly recommend a reading of his powerful book, which makes the case that partition is no longer avoidable and that we must broker “an amicable divorce” between the factions. And I know that he has been invited to address meetings of the newly elected Democratic intake on the Hill, many of whom have expressed varying degrees of interest and enthusiasm in his plan. The stakes here are not low. Does the Democratic leadership seriously suggest the abandonment of the whole of Iraq, including the abandonment of a region where the inhabitants have done everything that has been asked of them, from providing for their own defense with their own army to settling their own factional divisions? Is it to be forgotten that senior Democratic senators from Al Gore to Claiborne Pell spent much time in the 1980s and ‘90s defending the Kurdish cause against the degraded realpolitikof men like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Henry Kissinger?

At present, it seems that some Democrats are interpreting public disillusionment with Iraq as a mandate for isolationism and for treating a country that occupies a keystone position between Iran and Saudi Arabia as if it were negligible or irritating or an obstacle to plans for universal health care or the arrest of global warming. That this is a huge historical mistake is the least offensive way of putting it.