The trouble with the Biden plan: A critique of article by Flynt Leverett

An article titled To The Incoming President: On Iraq by Flynt Leverett appeared on The American Prospect on May 20, 2007. It starts by blasting George W. Bush who recklessly repudiated the Roosevelt bargain (an agreement between Roosevelt and King Saud in 1946 which shaped the US policy in the Middle East for nearly 60 years), Bill Clinton for his early version of the axis of evil and for defining the US policy for Iraq as a regime change, and the neo-conservatives who present themselves as a wing of the Democratic Party. He goes on to predict the certain failure of the US to force a compromise between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shias of Iraq. Then he compares three Iraq policy alternatives of the Democratic presidential candidates: Phased Withdrawal along the lines of the Baker-Hamilton report, which is endorsed by the front runners, Withdraw and Contain of John Edwards, and Biden’s Soft Partition. Despite of its shortcomings, the article shows a deep perception of Middle East politics, I recommend it to any Iraqi interested in US politics.

Leverett came down squarely in favor of soft partitioning, which means to accept the post-Saddam realities and shift to a regionalist approach to a decentralized Iraq with strongly autonomous regions. He sees that national reconciliation runs counter to the predominant regionalist trend and cites the use of sectarian forces to police areas of the wrong sect as failure of Iraqization and proof that the only way to police the different areas is on openly sectarian basis. The idea of policing communities by groups of the same ethnicity might seem new to some but it shouldn’t: in its recent history and before the invasion, Iraq used police of mostly the same sect or ethnicity in different communities, the real surprise is in expecting security successes from policing dominated by the wrong militias and bent on revenge as is happening now. In my humble opinion, justifying soft partitioning on the need for ethnic policing makes no sense.

Leverett emphasized the need to offer incentives to neighboring countries in order to play a positive role in the stability of Iraq and to elicit cooperation on a regional deal for soft partitionning, an attitude I find hard to accept since it clearly formalizes the role of other countries in the internal affairs of Iraq. I observe that the regional deal belies the US inability to seal the boarder and counts on the long-term goodwill of countries that may not be worthy of trust. What is even more surprising is how the US places the guarding of the boarder at low priority; for example, as is the case of most Iraqi police force, the eastern boarder police was run by pro-Iranian militias since 2003, and only recently was partially replaced by Polish troops. It is hard work to seal the long boarder, I know, and the US may not want its troops to be in direct contact with the Iranians, but with a centralist government it would be possible to guard the eastern boarders with Sunni troops and the western with Shias as it should be the case. This point should not have been overseen; if the boarders were properly guarded then the need for dependence on the goodwill of antagonistic neighbors would not arise.

Many political analysts, including Leverett, approach political situations by explaining scenarios and possible outcomes. The scenario method is sensible if important details are not missed, which is not the case in some outstanding failures of predicting outcomes in Iraq. I would like to pose one question to the advocates of partitioning: In a partitioned south, which troops will guard the eastern boarder? Consider the risks of this scenario!

All three policies miss important details but what sets Soft Partition apart is the imposition of a US permanent solution based on a temporary Iraqi situation. Civil wars are not new, look at the US history. Phased Withdrawal and Withdraw and Contain are neutral towards partitioning as observed by Leverett himself, only Soft Partition has a patronizing attitude and takes the will of the Iraqi people for granted.

The scenario and outcome approach presumes a certain degree of stability on the ground, but the “reality” of Iraqi public opinion regarding partitioning is fluid and does not depend on reliable census and elections. A better approach to the chaotic situation is to recognize the temporary nature of the strife and to focus on managing change without US interference in the political process. Specifically, to let the UN conduct a population census as soon as possible and supervise the elections for at least three terms in order to let the Iraqi people choose centralist or partitioning style over time. The role of the US in Iraq should only be temporary to assist in guarding the boarders, to provide air cover and generally to support the role of the UN in the recovery.

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