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?
Galbraith: Syria did not want the U.S. to succeed in Iraq for fear that Damascus would be the next American target. Until things started to go so badly in Iraq, there were people associated with the Bush administration talking openly about "doing Syria next." But, the stakes have gone up since the Hariri assassination. If Syria continues to allow terrorists to cross its border into Iraq, it is taking a terrible risk.
Reason: Do you feel the U.S. and Iraq might use Syria's Kurds against Damascus as a means of pressure in the future?
Reason: How will Turkey react to growing Kurdish autonomy, particularly if the U.S. pulls out and effectively lifts its protection from the Kurds?
Galbraith: Turkey's policy toward Iraqi Kurdistan so far has been realistic and forward-looking. Iraq's constitution creates a fully self-governing Kurdistan and includes a procedure to resolve the status of Kirkuk. Turkey accepts that it is the sovereign right of Iraq to organize itself as the peoples of Iraq choose. Turkey has chosen—very wisely in my view—to work closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government. It has also promoted Turkish business in Kurdistan, including a Turkish company that is developing the Taq Taq oil field under a contract with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Even Turkish hardliners recognize that Ankara has few alternatives. There is no military option. A Turkish intervention in northern Iraq would be much more difficult than its domestic 15-year war fought against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and would lead to international condemnation and possible sanctions. An intervention in Iraq would also kill Turkey's chances of joining the European Union. Many in Turkey now see Kurdistan as a kindred state—sharing Turkey's secular traditions and its Western and democratic orientation. Kurdistan is a buffer against an Islamic state in Arab Iraq. And, Turkey's policy of building close ties with the Kurdistan government gives it much more influence than a policy based on threats.
Reason: Among Democrats, you're listened to as a voice on Iraq policy; what are you advising decision-makers in the party?
Galbraith: The Democrats need to present a clear alternative to Bush's failed policy, and not just criticize. The Bush strategy in Iraq is based on illusions and wishes; the Democratic strategy should be realistic. The starting point is recognizing that Iraq has broken up, and then working with the constituent components. Both Kurdistan and Iraq's south are stable, and there is no need for coalition forces to provide security in either place. The U.S. should reduce its footprint in the Sunni Arab areas and focus on developing a Sunni Arab force that is willing and able to take on the insurgents. Because of the danger that terrorists might use the Sunni areas to stage attacks outside Iraq, the U.S. cannot withdraw completely from the country. But, we can reduce our forces quickly, keeping a rapid-reaction force in Kurdistan which is the one place in Iraq where we are welcome. We also need to step up our diplomacy in working to resolve issues—like Kirkuk—that could intensify Iraq's civil war.
Reason: Is Iraq better off today than it was under Saddam Hussein?
Galbraith: Yes. It is important to remember how cruel Saddam's regime was. Because Iraq is now free, the violence is constantly in the news; but over the past 35 years Saddam's henchmen murdered more than 500,000 Iraqis, with the world knowing little about it and remaining, alas, largely indifferent.
Reason: Finally, do you have any confidence that the Arab states might find an independent solution to the Iraqi crisis? If not, where do the Arabs come into any solution?
Galbraith: Within Iraq, the reputation of the Arab world suffers from the past silence of Arab countries when Saddam Hussein slaughtered Shiites and Kurds. Many Shiites and Kurds believe the Arab League favors Sunni Arabs, and it will be hard for the Arab states to overcome this legacy of mistrust. The recent Cairo conference on reconciliation was, however, a good first step. Perhaps the most useful thing the Arab world could do is to train a Sunni Arab military force that can take on the insurgents and terrorists.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.