The Life and Death of an Iraq Plan

The idea of dividing Iraq into a Federalist system with three autonomous regions once had some currency amongst Democrats seeking alternative approaches in Iraq. Now it is all but abandoned.

The idea, associated most closely with Leslie Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, gained traction when it was endorsed by Joseph Biden, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible presidential candidate. The two coauthored a widely noted op-ed in the New York Times endorsing “Unity Through Autonomy”.

Despite increasing opposition, Biden is sticking with the idea. On Dec, 4th he delivered a speech to the Israel Policy Forum at the Times Square Marriott in which he argued that a political settlement was necessary in Iraq and that “The most likely form for that settlement is a federalized Iraq, with three or more largely autonomous regional governments to suit the separate interest of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. A central government would administer truly common concerns, such as defending Iraq’s borders and managing its energy infrastructure.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, while advocating phased redeployment as the appropriate stance for the party, has long been sympathetic to the federalism idea, though he has advocated it much more quietly than Biden. This week Schumer again told me he was “more open to the tri-partite, to letting the three regions govern. I think things may move in that direction.”

But an increasing number of Democrats say it is implausible as an official American policy.

“You may end up dividing up this country in three different places, but I don’t think there ought to be a policy to do that,” said Senator Chris Dodd, another potential presidential candidate, in a recent interview. “You’ll have the Sunni governments of the region pouring money and resources into the Sunni enclave, you’ll have the Shia governments pouring money and resources into the Shia enclave, you’ll end up with a perpetual civil conflict over oil resources. Now it may end up that way. But as a measure of policy our goal sought to be to have a nation state emerge out of this.”

Wesley Clark, the retired general who is also mulling a presidential bid also told me that while partitioning may eventually occur, or already be happening, in Iraq, it could never be official United States policy.

The problem, he said, is that Iraqis forced to move out from their homes or from the more mixed urban areas like Baghdad or Kirkuk to the strongholds of their respective ethnic or religious group will associate their displacement with the United States. Clark said that feeling will breed even more resentment towards America.

“‘Bush did this to me,’ That’s what they’ll say,” said Mr. Clark. “Bush drove me out of my home. Or they will name some Democratic Senator. It could come to that but it can’t be what we want.”

But the nail in the coffin of American-endorsed Iraqi federalism now appears to be coming from Gelb himself.

“It may be too late for any political settlement,” said Leslie Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is very little support for it. The Baker group (Iraq Study Group) won’t support it either. I find myself whistling up a tree.”

–Jason Horowitz