War Stories

Defeat Without Disaster

The least bad plan for leaving Iraq.

Peter Galbraith’s article in the current New York Review of Books, “Iraq: The Way to Go,” is one of the most bracing essays written on the subject lately—a provocative but logical case for a U.S. withdrawal (though not a total withdrawal) that still manages to achieve a few of the war’s original goals.

I don’t agree with every plank of Galbraith’s proposal (more on that later), but anyone seeking a solution to this disaster needs at least to contend with his arguments.

Back in the spring of 2004, when Galbraith first proposed splitting Iraq into a loose federation of three ethnic enclaves, I criticized the idea. He did have a point. “Iraq” was an artifice from its outset, the product of a scheme to widen the British Empire in the wake of the First World War. When the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, it also imploded the artifice of a unified Iraqi nation, and there was no way to put the monster back together. It would be better, Galbraith argued, to let the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds govern themselves in autonomous regions, with a central authority doing little more than equitably distributing oil revenue.

At the time, and a few times since, I expressed serious problems with Galbraith’s plan. First, Iraq’s ethnic divisions were not clear-cut geographically: Many cities, notably Baghdad and Kirkuk, had mixed populations. Where should the ethno-regional lines be drawn? Second, since the central authority would be weak by design, it wouldn’t have the power to make, much less enforce, decisions on divvying up revenue. Third, the plan would have the effect of creating three “weak states,” which would likely spawn civil wars and possibly a regional conflagration, as the neighbors felt tempted or compelled to fill the power vacuums.

My objections remain, but the context has changed. Amputation seems a terrible idea when one’s limbs are still flexing. It’s a bit more palatable when the alternative is death, and, in Iraq, the gangrene is spreading.

“The Iraq war is lost,” Galbraith starkly declares in his new article. “Defeat,” he continues, “is defined by America’s failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place.”

He has now abandoned his plan for a partitioned federation, regarding the southern two-thirds of Iraq—the areas dominated by Shiite and Sunni Arabs—as hopeless. Instead, he calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from those areas and redeploying some of them to the northern sector, in order to protect the Kurds.

Galbraith has long been a consultant to the Kurds and, long before that, a passionate advocate for their cause. Still, an objective case can be made that the United States has a moral and strategic interest in Kurdish independence. Redeploying troops to the Kurdistan region accomplishes four goals, Galbraith argues. It “secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western.” It deters “a potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish war.” It “provides U.S. forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaida in adjacent Sunni territories.” And it limits “Iran’s increasing domination.”

All of these goals are worth pursuing; they are worth some sacrifice; finally, unlike other goals of this war, they are achievable.

And yet, the plan leaves out one thing—the people in the rest of Iraq.

Galbraith no longer describes Iraq as consisting of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Rather, he calls it “a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part.”

At one point in his article, he writes that his redeployment plan “discharges a moral debt to our Kurdish allies.” Fine, but if we’re talking morality, have we incurred any such debt to the Shiites—who were also oppressed by Saddam and whom the United States (specifically, President Bush’s father) abandoned in the endgame of the first Gulf War? Do we, for that matter, owe anything to the non-Baathist Sunni Arabs—who are also residents of this country that we destroyed without rebuilding?

Galbraith’s plan reflects a blindness—or perhaps indifference—toward the plight of those still trapped in the crossfire. “We need to recognize … that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country,” he writes. “In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw.”

He is probably right on both counts, but in those parts—by which he means the Arab parts—there are still millions of people who once called (or still do call) themselves Iraqis. And for them, can we really “accomplish nothing“?  Before we withdraw from the Arab parts, can we at least try to limit the sectarian bloodbath that—even Galbraith acknowledges—will likely follow?

Galbraith’s own analysis points to one possible approach. Back when he advocated a tripartite federation, he noted (correctly) that Iraq was already moving in that direction—only violently. Now, more each day, sectarian militias are ethnically cleansing neighborhoods, even whole towns, where Shiites and Sunnis once casually mixed.

Before they withdraw, U.S. troops could try to help minorities relocate into areas where their ethnic brethren are in the majority—providing the means of transportation and, to the extent possible, safe passage. Iraqi troops and police may be very keen to assist, if not lead the way, in this mission—at least if Shiite forces are called on to help Shiites, Sunni forces to help Sunnis.

It’s extremely discomfiting to abet ethnic segregation—but less so when the alternative might open the gates to mass murder.