Monday, March 20, 2006


The Three-State Solution (1)

As Iraq collapses into civil war, the three-state solution seem--if not inevitable--at least more and more plausible. Modern Iraq, a construction of colonial-era Britain, was a cartographical state, one serving the colonialists, not the citizens. The solution offered, most notably by Leslie Gelb, is simple, let it revert to natural lines of culture and race:

The ancestors of today's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have been in Mesopotamia since before modern history. The Shiites there, unlike Shiites elsewhere in the Arab world, are a majority. The Sunnis of the region gravitate toward pan-Arabism. The non-Arab Kurds speak their own language and have always fed their own nationalism....

The first step would be to make the north and south into self-governing regions, with boundaries drawn as closely as possible along ethnic lines. Give the Kurds and Shiites the bulk of the billions of dollars voted by Congress for reconstruction. In return, require democratic elections within each region, and protections for women, minorities and the news media.

Second and at the same time, draw down American troops in the Sunni Triangle and ask the United Nations to oversee the transition to self-government there. This might take six to nine months; without power and money, the Sunnis may cause trouble.

Gelb made this argument in November 2003, so perhaps he would alter some of the details to reflect current realities--but the point is made. Juan Cole, blogger badass and Michigan scholar (who has been critical of the administration's bogus arguments from the start--rather presciently in most cases), doesn't buy it. He thinks it's overly simplistic to reduce the equation to race:
While ethnicity is certainly a burning issue in contemporary Iraq, its importance has been artificially inflated by Baath policies. When the largely Sunni Arab civilian wing of the party came to power in 1968, it distributed the petroleum wealth and other perquisites to Sunni members of the ruling elite, especially those from Saddam's home base in Tikrit. Shiites filled lower-level posts in the south, but Sunnis dominated the top posts and funneled resources to a Sunni Arab sect-class of rentiers.

Shut out of the circle of patronage, non-Sunni Iraqis had to find bases on which to mobilize. They could not form secular parties that might try to appeal across ethnic cleavages on economic issues. The regime's relentless surveillance forced them to turn inward, to family, clan and the mosque. As a result, Shiite movements were able to organize clandestinely in ghettos and among settled tribes in the late Saddam period to make preparations for an Islamic state.

Cole also pointed out in the article (though he may wish to revise his thoughts, now that a year has passed since he wrote the article) that none of the groups want partition. The three-state solution, he argues, "assume[s] that ethnicity (and its political saliency) is a given, rather than something actively fashioned by society."

I don't think even Gelb would argue that the three-state solution is a fix to deeper problems confronting Iraq: generations of political instability, crumbling infrastructure (physical and civic), and widespead poverty. And then there's the looming x-factor: oil.

This post is running long, so I'll end it here and offer speculative thoughts about how a three-state solution might work (in that theoretical world where our country wasn't being run by the GOP). I'm interested in your thoughts on this, too.

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