Breaking Up Is Good to Do: The Case for an Iraqi Split

About a month ago, I was having dinner in a West Village bistro, eavesdropping on two young men who were discussing the American invasion of Iraq. Neither was for the war (nor am I), but it became clear that one of them could not wrap his mind around the possibility that the other could both oppose the war and claim that it might have been motivated by something nobler than imperialism and venality, even if the motivating idea was arrogant, naïve and ill-planned. By the time the less flexible young man asked his friend why, if America believed a Middle East democracy could transform the region, it would choose to attack Iraq, the most “stable” of Middle East states, I’d heard enough. “Genocidal dictatorships usually are stable,” I interrupted.

It was a rude, nosy thing to do, and the young men probably dismissed me as an outraged right-winger (instead of the outraged liberal Democrat I am). But I couldn’t help myself: Calling a fascist state such as prewar Iraq “stable” is symptomatic of the inability to make distinctions that’s plagued the left’s response to the U.S. invasion.

It’s now nearly an article of faith on the left that acknowledging the atrocities of Saddam’s Iraq is the same thing as supporting President Bush’s war. Just think of the moment in Fahrenheit 9/11 when the “sovereign” state of Iraq, as Michael Moore calls it (“sovereign” here having the same weight as “stable”), is represented by an image of a child flying a kite.

The value of Peter W. Galbraith’s The End of Iraq is that the author sees no contradiction between laying out the horror of life under Saddam and decrying the reckless stupidity of the current war.

During a long diplomatic career, Mr. Galbraith was, among other things, a U.S. ambassador to Croatia, a United Nations official in East Timor and a senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The strongest section of The End of Iraq—roughly the first half—outlines how Ronald Reagan, seeking to limit the power and territory of revolutionary Iran, excused and ignored Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and then the Kurds (who accepted Iranian support in the hope that Saddam’s defeat would be their means of self-determination). We learn how Reagan, wanting to save face after the public debacle of his arms-for-hostages scheme, sought to distance himself from Iran by favoring Iraq. He carried this new favoritism to the point of blaming Iran when Iraqi forces fired on the U.S.S. Stark in 1987, killing 37 American sailors.

After seeing the result of Iraq’s campaign to wipe out the Kurds, Mr. Galbraith drafted the 1988 Prevention of Genocide Act. Its Senate sponsors included both Jesse Helms and Al Gore, and it passed the Senate unanimously but was later killed, doomed by the opposition of those whose economic interests would have suffered from sanctions on Iraq, and by the dissembling of the State Department, which claimed that the poison gas was used only against Kurdish guerrillas (as if that were O.K.).

When it comes to overlooking Saddam’s history of genocide, the American left is far less odious than Reagan, who had the power to do something about it. But at a time when we need articulate, hardheaded arguments to counter the fantasies and lies of the Bush administration, the left, playing the same either-or game as Mr. Bush, has twisted itself in knots.

Mr. Galbraith is the kind of antiwar critic we desperately need. Addressing our most recent incursion into Iraq, he lays bare a history of cronyism, pipe dreams and willful ignorance about Iraq’s ethnic history and the alliances of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Mr. Galbraith’s contention is that Mr. Bush’s goal of a “unified Iraq” is a chimera. He argues that Iraq, riven by ethnic conflict and held together largely by Saddam’s brutality, has long been on the verge of dissolution. He thinks it inevitable that the country will become three separate states—and that a continued U.S. presence will only worsen conditions and delay the inevitable.

Mr. Galbraith may be right. His vision of Iraq breaking apart into three countries is not cavalier nor, he convincingly argues, is it a recipe for civil war (trying to keep the country together is). But his position seems to depend on as many ifs as Mr. Bush’s belief that the country will be one. Put it this way: When the surest bet you offer is that Turkey would probably not oppose an independent Kurdistan, you’re not arguing on solid ground.

It seems to me that Mr. Galbraith is far too sanguine about what a Shiite state would look like. He complains that the way in which the U.S. handpicked the Iraqis who would write their country’s constitution was undemocratic. “Democratic,” in this context, has the same weight as “stable” and “sovereign.” Whether something is democratic depends not just on how it’s decided but on what it is. If undemocratic means are taken to prevent the formation of an Islamic state, that still serves the purposes of democracy. Mr. Galbraith writes that in a dissolved Iraq, “the Shiites can have their Iranian-style Islamic republic, but only in the Shiite parts of the country.” This, he believes, is preferable to “a national government allied with Tehran trying to impose a Shiite theocracy on all Iraq.” How do we know a Shiite state wouldn’t be encouraged by Iran or Islamists elsewhere to export the revolution? Strategy and commonsense have played no part in Islamist ambitions so far. And even limiting an Islamic republic (now there’s a contradiction in terms) to Shiite Iraq means condemning the region’s women to life under tyranny.

That’s the contradiction Mr. Galbraith shrinks from here. He’s done a fine job of explaining how the Bush administration, ignoring the realities of Iraq and clinging to fantasies of unification, has sowed chaos. But is the choice we’re left with really, as he implies, making things worse with further action or tolerating an ideology that makes a mockery of human rights? If we choose the latter, then does Mr. Galbraith even allow for the possibility of the international community bringing nonmilitary pressure to bear on Islamic regimes for their violations of human rights?

He doesn’t say, and that may be part of his purpose. Mr. Galbraith is understandably galled that the Bush administration has ignored the reality of Iraq and the experience of those (like him) who thought the U.S. plan far too rosy to succeed. But The End of Iraq takes the tone of a position paper that can’t hide its “I told you so” disdain. There’s none of the sadness that gave George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate the richness of tragedy. Where Mr. Packer put Iraqis in the center, Mr. Galbraith keeps citing his own proximity to events. And the photos of him with various officials reinforce that air of self-regard.

Playing the role of truth-teller is never an easy task, especially when the truth you’re pushing goes against our native optimism, which assures us that there’s nothing our money and power and good will can’t make right. But whatever you think of the case Peter Galbraith is making here for the dissolution of Iraq, it could have only been strengthened if he’d admitted a touch of bewilderment, an air of dismay.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.

Breaking Up Is Good to Do:  The Case for an Iraqi Split