As the Bush administration faces increasing doubts about its performance in Iraq, its critics, spanning party lines, have sought ways to break the tedium of violence and redefine the American role in the country. On the Democratic side, Peter Galbraith has played a significant part in trying to shape a consensus, particularly in a series of articles in The New York Review of Books. A former ambassador to Croatia who was deeply involved later in East Timor, Galbraith first gained prominence on Iraqi issues as senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 1979 and 1993. During that time he published reports on the Iran-Iraq war and on the Iraqi regime's brutal campaigns against the Kurds. Galbraith is currently writing a book on Iraq.
Reason: What do you think will happen next in Iraq, once the upcoming December elections take place on the basis of the new constitution?
Peter Galbraith: The results of the December elections are likely to resemble the January elections. The peoples of Iraq will vote their ethnic or confessional identity, and few will vote as Iraqis. The Kurds will vote once again almost unanimously for the Kurdistan list and the Shiites will vote for the religious parties. Last January, the Sunni Arabs expressed their identity by not voting, which many now realize was a mistake. They will now vote for Sunni parties, and especially those linked to the old Sunni-dominated regime.
At the same time, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi will get votes from secular Arabs, and perhaps some religious Shiites disappointed with the weak performance of the current government. Allawi, Chalabi, and the Communists have the only parties that are Iraqi—in the sense of crossing the Sunni-Shiite divide—and, even so, they don't have any support in Kurdistan.
Reason: As someone who has argued in favor of allowing Iraq's three main groups—Arab Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds—to go their separate ways in a newly structured state, do you feel the new constitution will allow this to happen peacefully, or will it lead to a violent breakdown, perhaps in the manner of Bosnia?
Galbraith: If Iraq breaks up, it will not be because of the new constitution, which merely acknowledges a breakup that has already taken place, and provides a structure for Iraq's peoples to coexist. I think the constitution can help avoid a Bosnia-type war because it resolves many of the issues—control of oil, the future of Kirkuk, power at the center—that could trigger a civil war. Iraq's peoples do not share common values, or even a desire to be in the same state. This constitution allows the Kurds to be secular and Western oriented, and the Shiites to have a pro-Iranian Islamic regime in the south. This is the only way to reconcile such disparate agendas within a single democratic state. But, if Iraq does break up, the constitution's loose federalism could make the process relatively painless.
Reason: There have been many theories on how to absorb the Sunni insurgency. In the context of the growing mood of decentralization in Iraq, do you feel a new central government has the capacity to act decisively on this front?
Galbraith: The Sunni insurgency can only be defeated by the Sunni Arabs. The constitution allows them to form their own region and have their own military. A Sunni Arab regional government and regional military may be able to win enough support to take on, or co-opt, many of the insurgents. An Iraqi Army loyal to a pro-Iranian Shiite government (and led by Shiites and Kurds) will never be seen as a national army by the Sunni Arabs.
Reason: In recent weeks there have been moves in the United States to impose a withdrawal timetable on the administration. The pressure to reduce troops is growing. Where do you think these dynamics are leading, particularly as we approach the November 2006 U.S. elections?
Galbraith: The American people have lost confidence in President Bush and his administration's conduct of the Iraq war, and for good reason. It has been the most incompetently executed major U.S. foreign policy undertaking of my lifetime. The pressure for withdrawal will only grow, and may become a tidal wave by next November.
Reason: You've been close to, or advising, Iraq's Kurds for some time. Some would say that makes you biased when it comes to Kurdish autonomy, or even independence, at the expense of recreating a unified Iraqi entity. How would you respond to that?
Galbraith: I have great sympathy for the Kurdish people who have suffered horribly under Iraqi rule. But my analysis is based on the strategic interests of the United States. Every Kurd wants independence, and keeping the Kurds in Iraq against their will is a formula for never-ending violence and repression. A unitary Iraq is unstable and unachievable; a loose federation may work. But, if not, the U.S. should work for a peaceful separation.
Reason: Some say there already is a victor in Iraq, and that's Iran. Do you agree, and how far can Iran go in Iraq without provoking an Iraqi backlash?
Galbraith: The Bush administration removed Iran's arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, and installed Iran's allies in power in Baghdad. The most powerful political party in Iraq is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and it was formed in Iran. Iran created, armed and trained the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the SCIRI, which is the most powerful armed force in southern Iraq, and which has infiltrated the police and army. No wonder the Iranians are gloating.
Reason: Do you feel that an American and Iraqi escalation on the border with Syria is now inevitable, particularly in light of Syria's growing international isolation because of the United Nations probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?