Iraq Must Not Come Apart
“For decades, the United States has worshiped at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state.” I wrote these words in November 2003, six months after President George W. Bush declared “Mission accomplished.” I described the outcome of what I saw as the splintering of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions as “The Three-State Solution.” This thinking — once again inflaming policy debates — seemed to me the only way to avoid the internecine tribal and religious war again underway.
Middle East experts dismissed the idea as a partition policy. My intent was not to advocate a policy, but to describe what I thought was the inevitable breakup of Iraq. I urged the United States to make this as peaceable as possible. It was my hope that these states would eventually form a loose confederation.
It appeared that the experts had strangled my idea in the cradle until a strange thing happened to me on the New York to Washington shuttle in 2006. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. took a seat next to me, and while the plane idled on the runway, we talked about Iraq.
Mr. Biden and I agreed on the following principle: We didn’t want a breakup or partitioning of Iraq. Such a rupture would ignite terrible slaughter inside the country and unsettle the Middle East as a whole. Alas, my 2003 article lent itself to the partition criticism, even though it saw autonomous regions as a possible solution, and Mr. Biden and I wanted to clarify that point.
At the same time, however, we still had to stress our belief that the fragmenting of Iraq was inevitable unless each religious and tribal group had strong incentives to stay in a unified state. For us, there was only one policy glue: federalism, or the decentralization of power to the regions with a limited role for central government. Though different in the particulars, the same idea provided the freedom of action for the original 13 colonies to form the United States of America.
In 2006, Mr. Biden and I wrote, also in an Op-Ed for The New York Times, that any stability in a united Iraq would be contingent upon an American troop presence that should not and could not be indefinitely sustained. Sunni dictatorships had held the country together in the past, but provided no long-term answers to the country’s challenges. We proposed instead that Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions “each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security.” Baghdad would be declared a federal zone, and the central government there would be tasked with controlling defense, foreign affairs and the equitable distribution of oil revenues.
Despite all the criticism at the time, the Iraqis themselves embedded this approach in their Constitution. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki never implemented it, but rather sought to give his fellow Shiites the absolute power historically wielded by the Sunnis...