Partition Is Not the Answer to Iraq’s Problems

Splitting the country in three wouldn’t make Iraq more governable. What it needs is different leadership.

Iraq’s morass of violence and smoke has confounded peacemakers since the American invasion in 2003. No one — not the Americans, the Europeans, the Iranians, the Gulf states or even the Iraqis themselves — have yet to sustainably overcome the failures of the occupation. Which makes geopolitical silver bullets all the more tempting, because when solutions refuse to present themselves, we collapse inward to thoughts of get-peace-quick schemes.

In Iraq’s case, that has long been the argument for partition. If the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds won’t get along, well, fine. Make three nations from one and walk away with a job-well-done feeling.

This is not wholly wrong, but it’s not wholly right either. Silver bullets are tempting, but people often presume their magical nature mean it doesn’t matter where they hit. Yet even silver bullets can graze and not kill; in Iraq’s case, the overarching problem is not whether partition or federalism work, but that nobody, the incumbent government included, is treating the Iraqis as they expect.

Let me emphasize the “nobody” part of that: not a single force in the Iraqi geopolitical arena is acting the way a successful ruler of Iraq must.

But what do Iraqis expect?

Liberalism assumes they desire justice, freedom and human rights as internationally defined. Constructivists may say many Iraqis need powerful corrections for their traumatic past: the occupation, the sanctions and the treatment of the Sunnis by Nouri al-Maliki, for example.

Alas, it’s much simpler than that.

And for a while, the West was getting it right

Back in 2006, a murderous sectarian conflict raged in Iraq and the American occupation looked ready to founder. This was due to a relentless bombing campaign by Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had finally stirred the Shia to battle and ethnic cleansing. More than a few folks back then were ready to throw in the towel; the American Democratic Party won big in the congressional elections that year on an antiwar platform.

Then something odd happening. After years of blindly stumbling about the Iraqi cultural and political scene, the Americans got wise by getting pragmatic.

Rather than trying to treat the Iraqis as they would Europeans or Americans, the American authorities under General David Petraeus started to treat them like Iraqis.

That may sound Orientalist, but we have really solid data on what Iraqis expect culturally from leadership, whether those leaders are the Ba’athists, the American military or the Shia-controlled parliament.

According to the Hofstede Center, Iraqi culture expects strong, remote leadership with decisive rulers who lead without much input from underlings. Rather than inclusive leadership with give and take, as Americans are used to (and which they foolishly tried to apply to Iraq), Iraqis expect leaders who keep them from having to make decisions for themselves. Iraqis expect their families and tribes to be part of the political equation — in stark contrast to the highly individualistic Americans, who bristle at being lumped into groups.

Petraeus understood this well enough and applied these principles to the insurgency. Rather than negotiate, he bribed, arrested or shot his way through the rebellion. They were methods not all that different from Saddam Hussein’s, except the professionalism of the American military and the accountability of its officers to democratic leaders back in DC kept the war crimes to a minimum. Iraqi society saw leadership it understood and responded: the full boil of insurgency dropped to a simmer.

And this was all a success until the Americans stopped being clear leaders and started muddling again. As the new President Barack Obama began to withdraw from Iraq, his administration provided no clear structure to the Iraqis, hoping that what the White House assumed was common sense would prevail. But what is common in one place is rare in another; rather than sustain the political model of the surge, the new Shia prime minister, Maliki, embarked upon a messy, ineffective political program to empower his allies and weaken his rivals, mostly along sectarian lines.

And because such tactics were narrow and focused on just a few segments of Iraq, they backfired

Maliki set up one set of rules for his cronies and another for everyone else. If there was one thing well understood in the Saddam era, it was that hypocrisy was the reserve of the select few of the ruler’s immediate family, not whole swathes of the Iraqi elite. Maliki’s hypocrisy was too wide, and too unclear, for Iraqi society to accept.

Meanwhile, the Iranians double downed on their influence with the Shia while the Gulf states went hard for the Sunnis. The Americans dithered and hoped for the best; to anyone watching, it was clear no one after 2011 was in charge.

When the Islamic State burst into Iraq in summer 2014, Sunnis at last saw a system of governance that, while not particularly smile-inducing, also was understandable: leaders lead, brutally and decisively, and everyone knew where the immutable red lines were.

This is not to say that Iraqis like this kind of governance (besides, who ever likes their government?), but the historical record shows Iraqi society holds together under it and Hofstede’s theory helps frame why.

So how does this apply to partition?

Partition in and of itself cannot solve Iraq’s problems; only a permanent shift in political culture can. Iraqi society needs strong leadership ready to do what must be done in order to hold the nation together. “What must be done” can vary, but in the days of Islamic State no one can rule from Baghdad and not have a warrior’s mind. Small “d” democrats are nice, but without firm resolve and an FDR-like willingness to spill blood, they will amount to little in Iraq’s twenty-first century.

If Iraq is broken into three states all dominated by the same kind of inept political culture holding sway in Baghdad, it merely means yet another phase of violence and war. But conversely, if Iraq is held together with that same culture, the Islamic State will hardly be the last great rebellion to shake the state’s foundations.

Partition will only work if outside powers universally agree it must be done and strong, autocratic Iraqi leaders are found to dominate each of the three presumptive sections. That being said, a federal and/or unified Iraq will only work under the same conditions: a unified international consensus combined with strong, autocratic leaders who rule Iraq as it must be ruled.

Does this mean that Iraqi democracy is out? No, certainly not, but nobody should have any illusions that Iraqis want, or need, European-style parliamentary democracy. What they need is closer to World War II America, with a domineering executive branch embarked upon a campaign of national survival over all things.

Democracy in the West cannot be the same as democracy in the Arab world; the sooner Iraq’s Western backers understand that, the better off Iraq will be.