Sunday, October 15, 2006

Iraq: federalism and/or bust?

The Iraqi Parliament has passed a law allowing for the establishment of federal regions in Iraq.

This isn't the sort of thing that makes good sound bites or titillating headlines. Its real effect on the course of history in Iraq remains to be seen, but speculation is rife. Is it good for the US? Or for Iran? Or, for that matter, for the principal country involved, Iraq? Will it lead to fragmentation and Balkanization of the region, with three countries at odds: a Kurdish one, a Sunni one, and a possibly Iran-dominated Shiite one? Or will it lead to a unified country with autonomous but integrated and functioning parts?

After all, the US itself is a republic. Our central government has become so strong that we sometimes forget how relatively weak it was at the beginning, and how powerful the separate state identities. After all, it was only a century and a half ago (and less than a century at the time I was born) that we fought an exceptionally bloody and costly civil war to decide--among other things--just this very question of the autonomy of various regions with opposed points of view.

Wretchard writes:

One ought to distinguish between an Iraq in three warring pieces and an Iraq of three federal pieces. I am by no means persuaded that a federation is dead. And the main reason is oil. The Kurds need to ship their oil to markets and this will be difficult, if not impossible without coming to some sort of arrangement with the Sunnis and Shi'a. The Sunnis for their part need to get a share of revenue from the Shi'a and the Kurds. Without some federal government structure through which they can negotiate their differences, little can be achieved.

Wretchard goes on to state in his own comments section (for some reason I could not make the link work; his is the fourth comment in the thread) that Iraq was always known to be headed for some form of federalism because of the relative balance in the three sections of the country. I recall reading as much, myself, almost from the start: that the natural form the Iraqi state would take would have to be federalist.

This 2004 document, for example, written by Dawn Brancati and appearing in the Spring 2004 issue of the Washington Quarterly, is a lengthy and academic discussion (which I've only briefly and partially skimmed) that argues the benefits--and in fact, the necessity--of federalism for Iraq. This is a much shorter version of the same argument: that a too-strongly centralized government in Iraq would be likely to point the way to a new tyranny, and that federalism wouldn't necessarily fracture the country but could unite in the only viable way: loosely.

Federalism is the way our own country dealt with the knotty problem of unifying disparate and sometimes clashing elements. Of course, Iraq is far from being the US after the American Revolution. For one thing, it has a far bloodier and more traumatic history. For another, it lacks the US's natural protection from neighboring countries with a huge agenda. For still another, it is divided much more along religious lines.

Under Saddam, Iraq was a country with a Shiite majority ruled by tyrannical members of the Sunni minority. After the fall of Saddam and without federalism, it would likely be run by the majority Shiites if people voted along religious lines, possibly under the strong and tyrannical influence of Iran. With federalism, it may break into three factions, one of them run by the majority Shiites, possibly under the strong and tyrannical influence of Iran, but needing to cooperate with the others to get things done. Which is better, which is worse?

If you bother to read the comments in Wretchard's thread on the subject, you'll find arguments on both sides. This could be another disastrous step in the process of bloody civil war. Or it could be part of a long-drawn out journey towards a more stable and functional Iraq. I don't know; Wretchard says he doesn't know, and of course no one knows, although someone will be proven right some day with the hindsight of 20/20 vision.

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