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Post An Iraqi Federation?
Created by John Eipper on 01/12/12 4:16 AM

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An Iraqi Federation? (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 01/12/12 4:16 am)

Jon Kofas, a few days ago, made an attack on a proposal by US elder statesman Leslie Gelb to reorganize the Iraqi state into a more federal structure in an attempt to defuse conflict between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. In a post of my own the next day, I objected to the polemic and tone of Jon's post. Now Jon is defending his post claiming that, contrary to what I wrote, he was arguing the "merits or lack of merits of [Gelb's] arguments and reasoning."

Really? I cannot recall offhand that Jon addressed any of Gelb's arguments or reasoning. Let's take a closer look:

"Those familiar with the history of the Middle East know that divisions such as Gelb proposes are a reflection of Western divide-and-conquer mode of thought, more precisely of the US right-wing and Israeli lobby position."

This argument has two qualities.

First of all, it is of the form "everyone knows that . . ." So Jon argues that everyone who is not ignorant of the history of the Middle East knows that if anyone proposes any kind of subdivision of any kind of political entity he is thereby dividing and conquering. This kind of argument is addressed only to (a) people who agree, and find solace in the idea that everyone who is not an idiot thinks the same way; or (b) people who are not sure they know very much about the history of the Middle East, and therefore might be swayed by this assertion of authority. In fact, when anyone says "everyone knows that X," it is usually the case that nothing of the kind is true.

Secondly, it is an argument of a kind of guilt-by-association--Gelb's idea is a "reflection" of US right-wing and Israeli lobby positions--so, ipso facto, these positions must be wrong and are not worth thinking about; it must be assumed that if the US right wing believes it, or if the Israeli lobby believes it, it is automatically wrong. This type of argument is fine, I guess, if you are a propagandist engaged in some kind of ideological struggle, but is entirely useless to anyone who approaches the question with honest curiosity, and who is therefore who willing to at least think about any kind of honest proposals, without regard for where they come from--from the right wing, the left wing, Greens, libertarians, anarcho-syndacalists, whoever--so long as it works and brings results! Actually, it is a classical case of argumentum ad hominem--it approaches the source of the idea, not the substance of it. It is not a question of "Is the idea true, or not, and why?" It is quite different: "Is the propounder of the idea an extreme right-winger, or an Israeli tool?"

"Gelb's proposal creates more problems than it allegedly tries to solve, owing to a lack of appreciation of complex problems, and a single minded purpose of undermining Iran at any cost to the region, the world."

Jon asserts that Gelb lacks "appreciation for complex problems," but this is a bare assertion. Jon does not name the complex problem, nor does he point out what Gelb allegedly fails to appreciate. Again, the substance of Gelb's idea is not being engaged here--rather Gelb himself, that is, the source of the argument--is being summarily dismissed as an ignoramus, who doesn't do complex problems. Argumentum ad hominem. It must be said, that this sounds quite ridiculous, considering the stature of the person involved. We may disagree with Gelb, but I think that it is an exceptionally dubious case to make that this elder statesman fails to "appreciate complex problems."

The second quality of this argument is that it attributes to Gelb a purpose of undermining Iran. So--Gelb's proposal is supposed to have as its purpose stabilizing Iraq, but in fact the purpose is entirely different--undermining Iran. This is quite a strong assertion. Did Gelb say that? There is nothing about it in the article under discussion, and Jon does not quote Gelb as saying that anywhere else. And if Gelb did not say it, then how does Jon know what his purpose is? Again Jon does not even construct any arguments. The whole paragraph scans like "Everyone knows that . . . lacks appreciation for complex problems . . . right wing . . . Israeli lobby . . . nefarious purpose of undermining Iran . . . ergo, Gelb is either an simple-minded fool or a devious plotter against Iran (and by the way, it really ought to be one or the other, Jon), ipso facto.

OK, so we've gotten through the first paragraph. I don't believe that any "arguments or reasoning" of Gelb's have been engaged at all. We have instead something very different--the briefest exposition of Gelb's proposal, and a string of assertions, generally bald assertions, about the source of the proposal, including bald assertions about the motives and purpose of Gelb's proposal, which Jon cannot possibly know in the absence of some statement of Gelb's.

Well, but maybe further down in Jon's post, he will engage some of Gelb's arguments and reasoning?

Let's see. Next we have a digression to the Paris Peace treaty negotiations a century ago, and the division of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire*. Jon argues--and at last we have an actual argument--that just as it was then, so it is now. Well, maybe, but it is not clear how it is relevant to Gelb's proposal to federate Iraq now. The people who created Iraq in 1920 are long dead and lived in a very different world, than the people trying to figure out Iraq today. Jon might have said--but did not say--that a federated Iraq might open the door to the US colonizing Kurdistan--making Kurdistan into a client state in order to gain influence and preferred access to oil resources. And perhaps a bulwark against a newly hostile Turkey. Certainly, the US is not going to make either Iraqi Shiites or Iraqi Sunnis into volunteer clients, and military means are no longer at our disposal to do it by force, if we even wanted to. So devolving some elements of sovereignty on the Kurds might give us some chances there. I don't believe that we are interested in such a thing, but it's at least an argument. It would have been an interesting discussion. Jon did not bring it up.

Next we have an argument that Gelb's proposal has actually been around for a while, and that it is "useless" because it cannot be realized without support from Russia, China, Europe and Arab nations. Did Gelb propose that we should unilaterally impose such a scheme? I don't believe he did, and Jon does not quote Gelb as saying so. I believe that Gelb was arguing that the idea simply makes good sense, and proposes that we consider making it our own policy, and suggest it to the Iraqi government. An appeal to good sense does not necessarily imply what means would be employed in implementing it. It is certainly not "useless," just because it cannot be implemented unilaterally. On the contrary--if it makes good sense, if it is good for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds--then they might agree among themselves without any involvement of ours at all. Whether or not it makes good sense for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, or whether they even want such a thing, I do not know and do not claim to know. I, for one, am interested in intelligent, considered opinions on both sides of the issue. But Jon does not engage this issue at all - he merely dismisses the question, not with arguments, but with epithets--"right wing!" "Israeli lobby!"

So continuing in search of some real engagement of Gelb's "arguments and reason," we come to a paragraph about Gelb's being an "old-style imperialist who equates Israeli security with US interests." This is not any kind of engagement of "arguments and reason"--Jon is not talking about what Gelb says, but what Gelb is. This is another classical case of argumentum ad hominem, in the technical rather than popular meaning of the term--Gelb is wrong because of who he is (an imperialist; an Israeli tool), not because of the merits of what he said (which aren't even mentioned here). The argument is in this form: Gelb is an "old-style imperialist" and furthermore, an Israeli fifth-columnist (are we really sure that it's not his Jewish surname, Jon?). Plus, the US is "desperate to have some sort of control" (Really? Why? This is asserted but not argued). Ergo, there is a coincidence between this alleged US craving for control (no case for which has been made), and Gelb's Israeli interest (which is likewise assumed, as a given, and not argued), and voila, we have a conspiracy between America and this Jewish intellectual. The proof is not any official US policy, nor anything which Gelb has written, but what we presume America wants (on what basis?), and what the Jew is really getting after in his policy ideas, under the table, and contrary to his stated purposes. This is, I'm sorry, not an argument--it is empty polemics which will be interesting only to those who have already made up their minds. Jon is still manifestly not doing what he says he did--namely discussing Gelb's "arguments and reason," which he doesn't even mention in this paragraph.

In his last paragraph, Jon does discuss one of Gelb's actual arguments--that Iran might be poised to absorb some or another part of Iraq. He asks, rhetorically, "Is Gelb aware that Iran and Iraq have a history of conflict?" I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. It's like going up to Glenn Gould, and saying--are you aware that Bach was long dead before Beethoven was even born? The fact that you might not like the way Glenn Gould plays Bach (I do not, for example), does not give you the right to assume that he is an ignoramus. Really. Further the argument against Gelb's position is nothing but polemics, without a shred of argument--"Gelb's position is a reflection of extreme right-wing propaganda"; "shallow and simple-minded thinking on foreign affairs" (!), "those who have studied US-Iraq relations know..." And then--"If Gelb . . really care[d], they would try to convince . . . " - this last is an interesting argument--it amounts to--if you don't agree with my opinion, it means, ipso facto, that you don't care about the Iraqi people. Somehow Jon Kofas has made himself into the avatar of the interests of the Iraqi people, and if you disagree with him--you are against the Iraqi people. Once again--content, argument, facts, logic, are entirely lacking. This is pure polemics. In fact, Gelb was arguing, and I don't think that Jon was listening to him, that a strong Iraq is necessary because, among other things, Iran might be poised to absorb the Shiite part. A strong Iraq. Not a divided and conquered Iraq. This argument of Gelb's indicates a completely different motive and purpose, than the one Jon ascribes to him. But Jon does not engage this argument--he does not, for example, discuss whether Iraq might not be stronger, or why it will be weaker as a looser federation--a question which is actually really interesting to me, a person without an opinion on the matter. He merely flings scornful, patronizing epithets.

So what of the question itself? Since Jon engages only who Gelb is, namely an old-line imperialist and Israeli lackey, spouting extreme right-wing rhetoric, not caring at all for the good of the Iraqi people, allegedly, and has paid no attention to what Gelb actually argued, I think someone needs to do that, since we have dived into the subject. It shouldn't be me, because I have no opinion on the matter, and lack expertise in the region. But I'll try to get the discussion started on a different, more intellectually serious footing.

Gelb, in the current form of his argument, argues that federalism--not partition--is the only way to hold Iraq together as a country. Iraq is an artificial country--famously created by Winston Churchill--in which three nations are supposed to live together, three nations which have been "at each other's throats for centuries."

The stated purpose of Gelb's proposal is to keep Iraq together--to preserve the Iraqi state. To make it strong enough to resist external pressures, especially, what might be expected from Iran. And to prevent civil war, which no one needs, least of all the Iraqis.

He argues that a "tried and true method" of achieving this is by devolving regional affairs on regional governments. The less policy the central government is required to make, the less intractable will be the conflict. Kurds, he says, will never accept Shiite rule in a million years, and they will never stay in a unitary Iraq without significant federalism. The federal government will be responsible for foreign affairs, national defense, and dividing oil revenues, and most other issues of policy will be decided at the regional level.

Gelb emphasizes that keeping Iraq whole is of crucial importance--without Iraqi unity, there is, not only the Iranian threat which Jon mentions, but the prospect of endless civil war.

Gelb argues that federalism in Bosnia solved the exactly same problem and created a basis for Serbs, Muslims and Croats to live in a unitary Bosnian state without conflict, despite centuries of slaughtering each other. The argument is--the Bosnians faced the same problem, and they were able to solve it by devolving local control to the various regions. It will work in Iraq, too. Well, maybe. Gelb has at least stated an argument.

Lastly, Gelb attacks Republicans for criticizing Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq so early.

So what of these arguments? I would say, first of all, that there is no sign of any nefarious purpose in the text of Gelb's proposal. It's a plan for making Iraq stronger and creating stability in the region, something which I think is, uncontroversially, in the general best interests of the region and the world. Maybe it would work; maybe not--I have no idea. But on its face, at least, it is an idea which is intended to strengthen and stabilize Iraq. If it is not a plan to strengthen and stabilize Iraq, then the burden is on anyone asserting this to bring some facts which contradict the stated intentions of the authors.

Furthermore, there is no proposal of unilateral action on the part of the US. It is merely an idea--thrown out for general consideration. An idea which might appeal to Iraqis, in the first place, who might adopt it themselves.

Is it a good idea? Well, I don't know. It would take a great deal more information than what I possess, to formulate an intelligent opinion. I would cautiously agree with at least the first premise of Gelb's argument--that it is in the general interest for Iraq to survive as a unitary state, and not be broken up into smaller new states, and not to submerge into civil war. The Iraqis don't need any of this, and the world doesn't need it. Of course, we should never have invaded Iraq nor interfered with Saddam in the first place--we considerably harmed stability in the region and spent a trillion odd dollars for nothing--our position in the world is much worse than it was before. Saddam was a bad man, but it was none of our business, as I wrote in this space ten years ago. But I digress--that damage is done already, and the only thing to do now is make the best of it somehow.

Should Iraq be run under Shiite domination, rather than being federalized? As a strong centralized state? Well, I really don't know. And who does know? Maybe it should. I do not believe that every small nation has the automatic right to autonomy--if we adopted this principle most states around the world would disintegrate. Iraq is majority Shiite country--a Shiite-dominated government would not be a strange phenomenon--the world is full of minorities living in states ruled by majority nations, other nations. Gelb argues, however, that it won't work in this case because of the extreme bitterness of the conflict. Is he right? I have no idea. There are factual questions here--which go to the viability of a centralized, Iraqi state, and very importantly, to Iraqis' own perceptions of Iraqi statehood. Have Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq really been "at each other's throats for centuries?" One often hears this idea bandied about, as a known and given fact, but I have not, personally, encountered stories of Shiite-Sunni mass slaughter in my, admittedly, exceedingly superficial reading of the history of the region. It seems to me that we need to know more about that, before forming an opinion about Gelb's assumptions.

Certainly, Gelb's argument, right or wrong, has been taken much more seriously in the wider press, than it has on WAIS so far. Former Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden has taken up the torch on it, and in fact signed on as co-author of the proposal in some of the original op-ed pieces putting forth the proposal some years ago (see, e.g., http://www.cfr.org/iraq/bipartisan-redeployment/p11785 ).

On Slate, Timothy Noah argues in favor of Gelb's proposal. He extensively quotes Peter Galbraith, Bill Clinton's ambassador to Yugoslavia during the civil war there, who likewise believes that there are many parallels with Yugoslavia and that Iraq would have better chances of surviving as a federation. Jon paints Gelb's proposal as "extreme right wing" and "Israel lobby" driven. I don't think that whether or not that is true is relevant to the merits of the proposal. But since he has mentioned it, I fail to find a right-wing or Israeli connection behind this proposal. On the contrary, proponents of the idea of federalizing Iraq seem to be mostly left-wing intellectuals like Galbraith. But again, I don't think that this is relevant, either. This is one issue which, contrary to what Jon asserts so stridently, does not seem to be particularly driven by domestic ideology--it seems to cut across ideological lines--which makes it much more interesting to someone like me who finds questions which are more politicized to be less interesting (there is nothing more boring, in my opinion, then arguments like "You extreme right-wing imperialist! You Commie-pinko fellow traveler! Your mother wears army boots!").

Timothy Noah's article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/chatterbox/2004/04/kurd_sellout_watch_day_421.html ) is interesting, and worth reading to anyone interested in the subject. He argues that the main problem in Iraq is the Sunnis--who have demonstrated that they will not give up violence until they are free of Shiite domination. Ironically, according to Noah, Sunnis would suffer the most from a full breakup of Iraq, because Iraqi oil is mostly in the Shiite and Kurd regions. He asserts that the Shiites have demonstrated that they are able to manage the government, but notes that Shiites are likely to elect a theocratic government, if they get the chance. Noah argues that there is not much we can do about it, if that's what Shiites want. He quotes Peter Galbraith as saying that the sooner we get out of Iraq and let them run their own affairs, the sooner we stand aside so that Shiites can elect their inevitable theocratic government, the better--they will hate us less. It's pretty pathetic, debating which policy will result in relative less hatred of us, compared to relatively more--but indeed that is the position we are in.

The Gelb proposal to federalize Iraq was mentioned with favor in an article by Paul Pierpaoli, a historian of diplomacy, in The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars, Spencer Tucker, ed., Santa Barbara: 2010. Pierpaoli described the federalization plan as part of a series of proposals by Gelb and Biden, another of which was to quickly withdraw American troops and hand over control to the Iraqi Defense Force--this proposal was made in 2007. According to Pierpaoli, the idea of federalizing Iraq enjoyed "broad bipartisan support," but was opposed by the Bush administration. "But [the plan's] boldness, common-sense approach, and timing helped to inform the dialogue on the Iraq War and may well have been a factor in the Republicans' repudiation in the polls in the November 2006 mid-term elections, which resulted in the [Republicans' losing] both houses of Congress." Ibid, p. 213. Sounds less and less like an "extreme right wing" plot, does it?

Peter Galbraith, another proponent of a federalized Iraq, is of course a prominent left-wing critic of the Iraq War and the author of the rather scathing monograph The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, New York 2007, a good if very sad read which I recommend to WAISers.

So who is arguing against the federation of Iraq? There is an excellent, systematic compilation of all of the arguments, point by point, pro and contra, on Debatopedia, at http://debatepedia.idebate.org/en/index.php/Debate:_Partitioning_Iraq , with links to all of the main resources. This is a slightly different discussion--the subject is not Gelb's present federalism proposal, but Peter Galbraith's older and more radical proposal to create three separate states (there seems to be much confusion about who is proposing what--federalism or partition). But it is very useful to the current question.

The idea that federalizing Iraq would have the result of "dividing and conquering" Iraq for the benefit of Western imperialists can be found in the excellently reasoned article in Asia Times by Nir Rosen. Nir Rosen, ironically, considering Jon's accusation that Gelb's proposal reflects "extreme right wing" and "Israeli lobby" positions--is an Israeli. Rosen argues:

1. The general American view, which informs Gelb's proposal, that the Sunnis in Iraq are the "bad guys," who need to be isolated and punished, is wrong-headed. It is not Sunnis who are the cause of our troubles in Iraq; it is the entire Iraqi nation--the Shiites hate us as much as the Sunnis do, and all of them want us out. Isolating the Sunnis will not solve anything.

2. Implacable hatred between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is a myth. They actually have a long history of standing together against outside invaders and cooperating fruitfully. Rosen--who spent a lot of time in Iraq--says that Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, will often tell you that Americans exaggerate their differences.

3. It is another myth that Saddam's Iraq was dominated by Sunnis. It was rather dominated by Saddam's extended tribe, a very different thing.

4. Iraqis, by and large, believe that dividing the country would be a road to dividing, conquering, and plundering the country by Western imperialists (note well that this is an interesting and relevant assertion of a fact, the fact of belief of Iraqi people--Rosen is not arguing, so far, that this is necessarily so, but that many Iraqis believe it).

5. Even the Kurds, who have had a great deal of de facto autonomy since the First Gulf War, do not, by and large, believe in greater autonomy, at least at this stage.

6. No neighboring country would accept a divided Iraq (this is a relevant argument going to the viability of a federalized or partitioned Iraq).

7. "How many small, artificial and unviable countries (like Jordan and the Gulf countries) does the West wish to create in repetition of its post-Ottoman errors?"

8. The analogy, made by pro-federalists, to Yugoslavia is false--unlike the case of Yugoslavia, Iraq's groups "have no history of separate existence, and they have no history of mutual slaughter."

9. It is true that the Iraqi state was an invention--but all states start out as an idea. The main thing is that Iraqis believe in Iraq as a nation.

Well, these are powerful arguments, supported by relevant facts acquired first-hand by the author. If the facts are all true, then I find it pretty hard to argue with Rosen. Gelb and others in favor of federalism make one crucial, core assumption--that there is no real substance to Iraqi nationhood. That Iraq was a made-up entity which forced together irreconcilable, disparate groups into an unviable artificial state. This is the absolutely crucial assumption to the Gelb idea--if it is really so, then there is a lot to be said for Gelb's idea. If it is not so, then Gelb's idea starts to fall apart. And the test of this assumption is, more than anything--what Iraqis really feel themselves. Rosen has brought us something from first-hand experience in the country. I don't think that one source is enough to be convinced of the truth of these asserted facts, but it gives us something for further investigation. And perhaps the right way to decide the question would be an actual referendum in Iraq. I don't believe that every, or even most policy questions can be decided by referendum--I am no romantic believer in the unlimited justness of democratic processes, by any means--but this might be just the classic question for a referendum.
Rosen argues quite vigorously against Gelb's proposals, but unlike Jon, he treats Gelb with utmost respect, and does not question his motives. Here is what he says:
"Gelb is no doubt motivated by a sincere desire to extricate the United States from the Iraq briar patch. He led the anti-Vietnam War group during the Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations. He commissioned the Pentagon Papers that exposed the lie behind the Vietnam War and extricated the US from a previous morass. Gelb headed the State Department's Political Military Bureau under former president Jimmy Carter. He was one of the few people to understand the vanity of supporting the Shah of Iran and ignoring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution in 1979. His warnings went unheeded and US arrogance resulted in the hostage crisis."

PS: Both Jon Kofas and Gilbert Doctorow have accused me of making an argument in the form of "appeal to authority," Jon's accusation couched in his customary form "anyone who has ever studied philosophy . . .". Sorry, but to all of those sages who have "studied philosophy," I ask--what is the form of this argument, argumentum ad verecundiam? It is: "Authoritative Person X believes Proposition Y, therefore Proposition Y is true." Did I make an argument like that? Did I say anything like "Iraq must be federalized, because Leslie Gelb says that we should, and Leslie Gelb is a great authority." I did not say anything of the kind. On the contrary, I said that I have no opinion about whether or not Iraq should be federalized. My point was entirely different--that it sounds, frankly, ridiculous, to accuse a person of this stature of "shallow and simple-minded thinking on foreign affairs" and asking, patronizingly, "Is he aware that Iran and Iraq have a history of conflict?". To treat like that the arguments of a person who is sometimes called "the dean of American foreign policy"--well, it just sounds ridiculous. You may disagree with the arguments--we all have the right--but the arguments should be engaged with a modicum of respect. The bombast, the sweeping dismissal, is in fact, just a way of avoiding the substance of the arguments. It's not WAIS, in my humble opinion. That is what I was saying, and it was not an appeal to any authority. It was an appeal to ordinary modesty and decorum.

*As a digression from a digression, with a strange remark about Lenin's foregoing any claims to any spheres of influence--strange because Soviet Russia, of course, was one of the most aggressively imperialistic powers of the 20th century, and Lenin in fact immediately invaded Poland before he had even finished his own vicious civil war, already in 1919. The ill-fated first Soviet invasion of Poland, which ended in 1921, is the subject of Isaac Babel's wonderful novel Red Cavalry, which I highly recommend to WAISers. Lenin did not refuse to participate in the carving-up of the Middle East because he was uninterested in having imperialistic spheres of influence, but because the new Soviet state did not occupy any seat at the victors' table after WWI--it was not invited to participate in carving up anything. That is because the Russians, although they were one of the original main combatants on the allied side, were defeated by the Germans, and signed a humiliating separate peace with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk already in March, 1918, while the war was still raging in the West (the Hundred Days Offensive would not even start for another half year), and of course the Armistice was not signed until the end of the next year. So the Soviet government was not invited to participate in the formulation of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres which created the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, and was not a signatory either of this treaty nor indeed the Treaty of Versailles itself. Lenin's statements about being uninterested in spheres of influence, referred to by Jon, were mere bluster, made at the very same time as he was engaged in an aggressive shooting war to grab Polish territory.

JE comments:  The length of this posting far exceeds the WAIS guidelines (5 paragraphs is the ideal), but I could not think of a way to elegantly divide it into two or three installments.  I should point out that there are a couple of submissions from Jon Kofas in my inbox, one of which reads as a near-riposte to the above, even though Jon obviously didn't have the chance to read Cameron's essay.  I'll publish Jon's post next, and then I'm going to move on to a different topic.

Cameron asks if the Iraqis feel they are a nation.  A very important question that ties in with the central thesis of my favorite book on nationalism, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.  It's not whether a nation is; it's whether a people believe they are a nation--if a community can imagine itself.  Does this apply to the three major ethnic groups in Iraq?  Do the Kurds feel they are Iraqi?  I always thought they didn't.

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