Steven Cook glumly predicts that the country as we know it is finished:
Had Maliki been inclusive—something that was impossible given the constraints and incentives of Iraqi politics—he likely would have still confronted resistance from areas of the country that chafe at the centralizing propensities of those in the capital. And herein lies the fundamental problem of Iraq: The country’s political physics create pressure to pull it apart. To the extent that people in Anbar and neighboring areas, no less the Kurds and many in the south, do not want to be ruled from Baghdad, it only gives impetus for rulers there to accumulate power in an effort to ensure that the country remains intact. Yet this only fuels yet more resistance to the capital. It seems that only Saddam-like brutality could keep the country together. Once American forces smashed that system of fear, the process of dissolution was set in motion.
Rosie Gray collects told-you-sos from Bush-era advocates of partitioning Iraq into Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurdish states:
“Clearly it would have been better 10 years ago to accept the reality because then Sunnistan would not be an ISIS state, it would be something that was more tolerable,” [Peter] Galbraith said. Still, he said, “It’s really a matter of time and not very much time before they go to full independence.” As for Biden, the highest-profile supporter of such a plan at the time, [Les] Gelb said the vice president still supports a potential federal system in Iraq. “He still agrees with it, still wants to try,” Gelb said. “He’s realistic and understands that it’s a long shot.” Gelb said that other than Biden, he doubted there was much support inside the administration for such a plan.
Clive Irving looks back at British spy Gertrude Bell’s role in the invention of Iraq:
In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border, asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology. Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south, who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own turf. [T.E.] Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own words, “as yet undefined.”
The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.
But Debora MacKenzie argues that Iraq’s borders are not the problem, and warns that partition could actually make things worse:
Commentators have been quick to blame Sykes-Picot for the current unrest, but experts disagree. “The violence in Syria is not some messy centrifugal separation of an artificial state into its primordial ethnic or sectarian ingredients,” says Elias Muhanna of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The idea that humans are naturally divided into clear “nations”, each with its own political territory, has failed to stand up to anthropological investigation. John Breuilly of the London School of Economics, says former colonial empires were carved into multi-ethnic states partly because people were intermixed and ethnic groups ill-defined, and partly to avoid conflict by privileging particular groups.
With prosperity and even-handed government, multi-ethnic states from Belgium to Malaysia are viable. … Countries with diverse populations can be stable if their governments are capable of guaranteeing security to everyone, in some cases perhaps by creating large, semi-autonomous enclaves like the Kurds in Iraq. The alternative is reshuffling the region’s population into ethnically or religiously defined states, such as the one ISIS wants. However, the migration and “ethnic cleansing” that follow is likely to be considerable – and violent.
And Robin Wright focuses on political reconciliation:
Any plan for stability—whether Iraq remains a single state or breaks into three—has to begin with the underlying political problem. Last week, President Obama called for a multiethnic governing council in Baghdad but, with insurgents less than fifty miles from the capital, that option is now too little, too late.
Iraqis must become invested in their own political order and risk putting their lives on the line to secure it. Unfortunately, Maliki may not be willing to either cede the powers required for a just resolution or to step aside. His intransigence has sabotaged Iraqi nationalism—though others share in the blame—and simply propping him up could eventually be costly. On Tuesday, Maliki defied international appeals for political outreach. Instead, he declared a boycott of a Sunni political bloc and put the blame for Iraq’s disintegration on Saudi Arabia. “We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that—which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites,” his government said in a statement. So Washington will have to be bold and blunt with him—and even consider withdrawing support. Leaving the political work undone a third time around only risks yet another failure—and who knows how many more.
(Photo: Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 17 2014, in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. By Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)