Operation Save Face

There is nothing about the present U.S. strategy in Iraq -- if indeed the Bush administration's ever-shifting plans can be called a strategy -- that suggests more of it will work. On January 31, national elections are scheduled in Iraq. Except when viewed through George W. Bush's perpetually rosy lenses, these elections seem likely to trigger an explosion of violence in large parts of the country. Successful elections may be even worse than thwarted ones. Voting could set the stage for civil war among Iraq's ethnic and confessional communities, which hold diametrically opposed ideas about the future of the country.

U.S. policy in Iraq from the day Saddam Hussein's statue fell to the present has been, without doubt, the most incompetently executed major American foreign-policy undertaking in at least 50 years. To succeed in transforming Iraq, the United States needs to secure the country and quickly begin to make a material difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Operating on a plan based on the hope that police and bureaucrats would show up to work the day after Baghdad fell, the Bush administration did nothing to prevent the systematic looting of every government ministry in the months that followed the start of the U.S. occupation. Twenty months later, the U.S. military has been unable provide security, while efforts to train a new Iraqi police and army have been inept and slow. The administration turned Iraqi reconstruction over to political cronies and favored companies, with the result being that little has been accomplished. So far, less than 15 percent of the funds appropriated for reconstruction have actually been spent.

Bush's greatest failure, however, has been his administration's inability to produce a political agreement among the peoples of Iraq. I counted at least six different U.S. political strategies for how to handle Iraq's political transition. Each foundered after being opposed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Iraq's Shia religious establishment.

A political settlement among Iraq's Kurds, Shia, and Sunni Arabs is a precondition to creating an internal viable security force and to the effective spending of reconstruction money. The alternative is, as the CIA warned in July, civil war (a warning Bush dismissed, saying that the Iraqi people did not share the CIA's pessimism).

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Any political settlement must take account of the fact that Iraq has broken apart and cannot be put back together again as a unitary state. The Bush administration has persisted in the belief that there is such a thing as “the Iraqi people,” and that Iraq could become a multicultural democracy very much like the United States. As Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, put it in an April 2004 speech, “The path to a new Iraq [is one] … where the majority is not Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd, or Turkoman but Iraqi.”

Iraq is not like the United States. It was put together by the victorious allies at the end of the First World War out of three disparate Ottoman vilayets (or provinces): Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The country never commanded the loyalty of its citizens. Further, the ethnic and confessional lines of 80 years ago remain in place. Kurdistan in the north is Kurdish, with Turkoman and Christian minorities. The center is Sunni Arab, and the south is Shia Arab. (The city of Mosul is majority Arab and is not considered part of Kurdistan.) Only the city of Baghdad has changed, where Shia and Kurdish immigration has made Sunni Arabs a minority. Even so, each community lives largely in its own part of the city.

Iraq's divisions are not just ethnic and religious. They are compounded by a bitter history in which both the Kurds and the Shia have suffered grievously, and by very different value systems that place secular, Western-oriented Kurds at one end of a spectrum and religiously inclined Shia at the other.

The Kurds do not want to be Iraqi at all. When the country was formed, the Kurdish leaders of the day told the allies that they did not want to join. When their views were ignored, they launched a series of rebellions that have continued more or less to the present day. Successive central governments responded with repression, which in the 1980s evolved into genocide. Saddam Hussein systematically destroyed nearly every village in Kurdistan, deported and executed more than 100,000 civilians, and bombarded more than 200 villages with chemical weapons.

Since 1991, Kurdistan has been a de facto independent country. In 1992, the Kurds organized free elections for their own parliament. Today, the Kurdistan Regional Government controls the region's budget, police, educational system, and natural resources. Iraqi law applies only if the Kurdistan Regional Assembly chooses to enact it for the region, and the assembly often enacts separate Kurdistan law. Most importantly, Kurdistan has its own army -- the 75,000–strong peshmerga -- that is today more potent than any Iraqi military.

The Kurdish people see their 13 years of self-government as a golden period in which they rebuilt the destroyed villages, constructed two new universities and 2,000 new schools (trebling the number that existed in Hussein's time), prospered economically in spite of sanctions, and developed a pluralistic and semi-democratic political culture with an explosion of Kurdish media and independent organizations. Younger Kurds don't speak Arabic and have no Iraqi identity; for the older generation, Iraq is only a nightmare. The Kurds are secular and very pro-American. In one month earlier this year, a coalition of Kurdish nongovernmental organizations collected 1,700,000 signatures on a petition demanding a vote for independence -- a figure that represents some 80 percent of Kurdistan's adults. The Kurds want to maintain their independence, and they see no force in Iraq -- or internationally -- that can make them give it up.

Iraq's Shia also have a history of repression and discrimination at the hands of Sunni Arabs -- and a historical sense of grievance that goes back 1,400 years. Following the failed 1991 uprising, Hussein's forces massacred as many 300,000 Shia, and, during the ensuing decade of sanctions and privation, Baghdad provided the Shia with smaller rations than Sunnis and fewer services. While the Shia were the prime beneficiaries of the U.S. invasion, their deep-seated suspicion about the United States goes back to 1991, when the first President Bush called for an uprising and then lent Hussein a free hand to massacre the rebels. Still, it was a singular achievement of the current Bush administration to alienate so many Shia in such a short period of time.

The Shia identity is a religious one, and today the Shia overwhelmingly support religious parties (much as Kurds support nationalist ones). These run the gamut, from the pro-Iranian Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to the more radical followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shia believe it is their moment to run Iraq, and they want a state in which Islam is the principal source of law. This brings them into direct conflict with the secular Kurds.

Southern Iraq is governed not from Baghdad but by an informal system involving the mosques, the religious parties, and the militias associated with the religious parties. The officials assigned to represent Baghdad in the Shia areas were either chosen by the religious establishment or have been co-opted by it. The Shia religious leaders handle their region's security, are implementing a revised educational system, and provide many vital services. Although not formally as separate as Kurdistan, the Shia south is functionally separate.

The Sunni Arabs, in spite of comprising just 15 percent of the population, ran Iraq from its founding until the 2003 U.S. invasion. Historically, the Sunni Arabs have been Iraqi nationalists and pan-Arabists (linked therefore to the Sunni Arab majority in the Arab world). Today, they experience not only the loss of power and position but fear domination by the Kurds and the Shia. With Iraqi nationalism no longer equated with Sunni Arab power, religious parties -- including those associated with fundamentalist sects -- have made inroads into Sunni areas. Tribal leaders have influence, but few risk their lives to take on the insurgents. As a result, today's Sunni Arabs are largely disenfranchised in Iraq.

The separation of Iraq into Kurdistan and an Arab state may well occur in the next decade. In the short term, however, a breakup is highly undesirable. Unresolved territorial issues between Kurds and Arabs could mean a bloody fight, notably over the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. Turkey, long fearful that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq could reignite separatism among its own Kurds, would vehemently oppose Iraq's breakup. Even if it didn't invade, Turkey could make life miserable for an independent Kurdistan. Iran and Syria, also home to millions of Kurds, likewise oppose Kurdish independence.

Because Kurdistan can neither be brought back under Baghdad's control nor become fully independent, a loose confederation becomes the only plausible political settlement to keep Arabs and Kurds together in Iraq. Arabs are, of course, divided between Sunnis and Shia. If there is a single Arab entity, the Shia will dominate, fueling resentment among Sunnis. Further, because politics in both communities has a predominantly religious character, the schism between the two branches of Islam will become more pronounced. Under these circumstances, it makes sense for each confessional community to govern itself in its own state. Baghdad, home to all three communities, could become its own unit, like Brussels in Belgium.

In a confederation, each of the three Iraqi states (and Baghdad) would have its own government and parliament. The state, not the central government, should be sovereign in almost all competencies, including religion, education, police, budget, and local economy. Each Iraqi state should own and manage its own petroleum and water resources. Without controlling the principal source of revenue, the Iraqi states cannot become fully self-governing. All of Iraq's regions have some oil, but by far the largest fields are in the south and under Kirkuk. As in Canada, the well-endowed Iraqi states would have to share some of their oil wealth with other regions.

Each Iraqi state should control its own military, security services, and police. This is already formally the case in Kurdistan and the de facto situation in much of the south. The Iraqi army has been the only enemy both the Kurds and the Shia have known. The Kurdistan Regional Government refuses even to permit the new Iraqi army to enter its territory, and will insist on a constitutional provision giving itself a veto over any deployment of the central government's military to Kurdistan.

Considering the antipathy that so many Iraqis have toward the Iraqi military, it should not have been any surprise that few recruits were prepared to fight against the insurgents. With 60-percent unemployment, Arabs are willing to join the U.S.–created army, but few owe it any loyalty. By contrast, being a peshmerga is a rite of passage for Kurdish men, while the militias associated with the Shia religious parties also have loyal and motivated fighters. Converting the peshmerga into the Kurdistan security force has already taken place, with the acquiescence of the Bush administration (which in a particularly silly gesture insisted that the bulk of the peshmerga be called “mountain rangers” in English). The militias associated with the two long-established Shia religious parties, Dawa and SCIRI, are disciplined and could become the nucleus of a southern Iraq security force. It would not be a pro-American force, but it could keep order.

The central government should have relatively few powers in an Iraqi confederation; foreign affairs, currency, and customs are the obvious ones. In addition, certain central government ministries would have an important role in fostering cooperation among the three states. The oil ministry, for example, would have an essential role in managing a pipeline system that crosses all three states and allocating exports within Iraq's Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Companies quota. The Water Resources Ministry would need to coordinate water use to ensure fair allocation among all regions.

A confederation is the easiest political system to implement in Iraq because it reflects the reality on the ground. While some will argue that it is a formula for the country's breakup, it may actually foster greater cooperation among Iraq's states. Freed from fear of Baghdad domination, the three states may see practical reasons for cooperation.

Besides, there is no realistic alternative. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is, as one Iraqi described him to me, the mayor of Baghdad's “Green Zone.” There is no practical way to extend the central government's authority into Kurdistan or to alter the de facto arrangements in the south. The central government may have to take over the Sunni Triangle if the insurgency continues in its present virulent form, but it is far from clear as to whether it can actually do so even with U.S. military support.

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Negotiating a confederation would require the same level of diplomatic engagement that President Bill Clinton and Richard Holbrooke brought to ending the Bosnia war (and, if he really wanted to be bipartisan, President Bush could ask Holbrooke to broker a confederation deal). At the start, the Shia would need to be convinced that their electoral majority does not mean that they can impose their will on all of Iraq. This would be difficult when the most influential Shia leader, al-Sistani, refuses to meet with U.S. officials. If boycotts and violence reduce voting in the Sunni Triangle, U.S. negotiators may not find Sunni Arab interlocutors who can actually deliver their region in a deal. A second set of elections may be needed in the Sunni Triangle if the insurgency there can be contained. The Kurds may have to compromise on territorial issues, including their claim to Kirkuk. The Kurdish leaders, who have been working below the U.S. radar to return Kurds to the homes from which Hussein expelled them as part of his forced “Arabization” program, assert that Kirkuk is their Jerusalem and a nonnegotiable part of Kurdistan.

In 2004, the United States fought two insurgencies: the Shia insurgency of al-Sadr, which extended from Baghdad's Shia slums to Basra, and the ongoing insurgency in the Sunni Triangle. In spite of Bush administration attempts to dismiss his importance, al-Sadr has real support among the Shia. Not only was he able to mobilize his Mahdi Army in most Shia cities, U.S. government–sponsored polls show he is one of the most popular politicians in Iraq. His popularity is directly related to the Bush administration's failure to spend reconstruction money and thereby make a material difference in the lives of Iraq's Shia.

But the Shia insurgency can be fixed. Al-Sadr's popularity gives him an incentive to enter the electoral process, and he seems inclined to do so. Moderate Shia leaders were reluctant to take al-Sadr on when the contest was between him and the American occupiers; now, they will not allow him such leeway in a challenge to their own state. And al-Sadr himself has been unwilling to take on the more senior Shia religious establishment directly. A self-governing Shia area, combined with meaningful spending of reconstruction funds, should solve the al-Sadr problem.

The Sunni Triangle insurgency is far harder to end. Even after a year of escalating warfare, neither the U.S. military nor the Iraqi interim government seems to have a clear idea about the enemy. During an October visit to northern Iraq, I gained some insight into the situation in Mosul. Iraq's third largest city, Mosul is fast becoming a bigger version of Fallujah. Kidnappings, car bombings, beheadings, and assassinations are increasingly common, with the targets being the U.S. occupation forces, the representatives of the Iraqi interim government, and ethnic Kurds who inhabit the east side of the city. The insurgents include Arab nationalists, ex-army officers, and Sunni fundamentalists. The insurgents have created a de facto administration in Arab west Mosul, collecting “taxes” and imposing a rough justice. With the death penalty meted out for even relatively minor offenses (prostitution, a doctor ignoring a warning to lower his fees), there are shades of the Taliban.

The police and, according to some Iraqis, the U.S.–appointed police chief cooperate with insurgents. They help set up kidnappings and roadside bombings by alerting insurgents when a kidnapping target, or U.S. convoy, rolls by a police checkpoint. And they look the other way when armed insurgents pass through the checkpoints. It is impossible to know how much this local cooperation with the insurgents comes from anti-American sentiment and how much from fear. There is, however, no critical mass within Mosul -- nor, it appears, within any other Sunni Triangle city -- to take on the insurgency.

In an optimistic scenario, elections in the Sunni Triangle for the central Iraq state government would produce moderate leaders with real power. Even if this doesn't happen, though, the United States could train Sunni Arab forces associated with more moderate leaders in hopes that they -- perhaps with help from the Kurdistan and southern security forces -- could contain, if not fully defeat, the insurgency.

The United States has no military solution to the Sunni Arab insurgency. Air strikes into urban areas may kill insurgents and terrorists, but they also kill civilians in whose midst the enemy operates. From the insurgent perspective such collateral damage is desirable, as it makes new enemies for the Americans. Further, none of the Iraqis involved in intelligence activities with whom I spoke thinks that the United States has good enough intelligence to know reliably that a proposed target really belongs to the insurgents and terrorists.

Still, the United States cannot simply withdraw from Iraq. Leaving central Iraq in the hands of the insurgents is too risky, as the area could become what Afghanistan was under the Taliban: a base from which terrorists plot attacks on the United States. Rather than withdraw from Iraq as a whole, the United States could redeploy some troops to bases in Kurdistan. Having thrown in their lot with America, the Kurdish leaders are desperate for the security that would come with permanent U.S. bases in their territory.

From Kurdistan, the United States could organize training of the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish security forces, without the provocation of having large numbers of American soldiers on Arab land. The United States could also be poised to intervene in the Sunni Triangle should extremists or terrorists get the upper hand.

Getting the politics right would enable the United States to address the security challenge. It is essential that this be accompanied by rapid measures to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Stunningly, the Bush administration has spent only a small fraction of the $18.4 billion appropriated for reconstruction. A full year after the funding became available, a little more than $1.5 billion had been spent. Further, because of contractor overhead, security, and negotiated profit, just 27 cents of every dollar appropriated actually benefits Iraqis.

This system should be scrapped in favor of direct grants to the new state governments and to local governments. Regional governments and contractors in Iraq have much lower costs and can be much more efficient in spending reconstruction money than U.S. contractors. In the fiscal year from mid-2003 to mid-2004, the Kurdistan Regional Government received a block grant equal to 6 percent of Iraq's total budget -- less than one-half of the per capita amount that was allocated to other Iraqis. The Kurds spent the money so efficiently that there is actually a labor shortage in Sulaimaniya, the region's second-largest city, and close to full employment elsewhere. A visitor to Kurdistan sees activity everywhere -- from the building of new roads and airports to construction of public buildings -- that contrasts with the lack of activity and 60-plus-percent unemployment rate in Arab Iraq. Making block grants brings with it the risk of corruption and theft, but it is hard to imagine that this would consume the same 73-percent share that now goes to U.S. contractors -- some of whom are at the center of scandals involving overcharging and other abuses.

With a credible political, security, and economic plan, President Bush should convene a summit to ask allies for help. More troops will not be forthcoming, but nor will they be needed. Any workable political plan would involve turning over security in northern and southern Iraq to the Kurdistan and Shia governments, respectively. Nor should the United States want to stay long in the Sunni Triangle. But other countries can contribute to training of the various local security forces. In Arab Iraq, a non-American face on these activities could be a distinct advantage.

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George W. Bush has been the most radical U.S. president in foreign affairs since Woodrow Wilson. Bush has articulated a new doctrine of preemption, preferred a “coalition of the willing” to traditional alliances, and exhibited contempt for the United Nations and a disregard for international law. Most ambitious of all, he has established a national goal of transforming the Arab world into a Western-style democracy and is willing to commit the U.S. military to achieving it. (For the president and his neoconservative advisers, the dream of a democratic Middle East was, I think, a far more important reason for the Iraq War than concerns over weapons of mass destruction.) Liberals, who believe in international law and the United Nations, oppose Bush's agenda on philosophical grounds. But it should be reversed for practical, and not just philosophical, reasons. The Bush agenda makes for a poor national-security strategy that has left our country weaker and more vulnerable.

National-security strategy is about prioritizing, but Bush has never prioritized. He's acted as if he has unlimited resources, and he's never considered the possibility that his chosen strategies might not work. The Bush preemption doctrine does not distinguish between imminent and distant threats. So while Bush focused on the distant threat posed by Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the global nuclear nonproliferation regime began to unravel. North Korea denounced the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and took plutonium previously under safeguards and claims to have made six nuclear weapons. Iran has enriched uranium and seems intent on developing nuclear weapons. In 1994, President Clinton threatened war to force North Korea to enter into an agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons. But when North Korea cheated on that agreement, the Bush administration talked loudly -- provoking North Korea to pull out of the NPT -- and did nothing. The Iraq invasion was meant to intimidate North Korea and Iran into giving up their nuclear programs. Bush did not consider how these countries would see a situation where nine out of 10 active-duty Army divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan (or preparing to go). Iraq was all-consuming.

U.S. foreign policy should return to basics. We need to focus resources on the main threat, which is the danger that hostile states linked (at least in the recent past) to terrorism will acquire nuclear weapons (Iran, North Korea), or that states without adequate controls (Pakistan) will share them. Also, President Bush should abandon his nonchalant attitude toward Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. Not only is there the matter of justice for the murder of nearly 3,000 of our countrymen, there is the commonsense point that, if bin Laden can send a video to Al-Jazeera, he can still coordinate terrorist attacks.

Finally, Bush might reconsider his attitude toward the United Nations. It is, of course, an imperfect institution reflecting a world with more than 190 disparate countries and thousands of transnational actors. But, as Bush found out, the UN can do things that the United States cannot. Bush needed the United Nations to design and oversee an election system in Iraq and Afghanistan providing an impartiality and competence that the United States does not have (not surprisingly, the rest of the world is not impressed with how the United States conducts its elections). The UN has unique expertise in the hardest of all international undertakings: helping rebuild societies after conflicts. One need only compare the United Nations' record in places like East Timor and Kosovo with how the Bush administration has managed the occupation in Iraq. I served in the UN mission in East Timor, and at least half the staff fielded by the United Nations was competent.

The provisions of the UN Charter on the use of force turn out not only to be a legal nicety but also a critical step to success. Thanks to a UN resolution (1441) combined with a U.S. military deployment to the region, Saddam Hussein readmitted UN inspectors who were on the verge of discovering that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction. Had Bush stopped there, his Iraq policy would have been seen as a brilliant example of coercive diplomacy, and he would likely have coasted to a second term.

But Bush is nothing if not stubborn. He is committed to “victory,” which his administration has defined as a unitary and democratic Iraq. So defined, victory is unattainable (as well as undesirable). Iraq's elections almost certainly will provide a dose of reality that even this president cannot ignore. Let us hope that Bush can turn his focus to the most serious threats to American security. In order to be able to do so, however, he will have to get out of Iraq quickly and with a modicum of honor. This is possible only through a negotiated confederation.

Peter W. Galbraith, the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia, is the Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. As a staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1980s, he uncovered and documented Saddam Hussein's “al-Anfal” campaign against Iraq's Kurds.