Breaking Up Ain't Hard to Do

James Baker prepares the exits in Iraq


In Washington, there is a frequent step before old soldiers die and after they've faded away; recruitment into a blue ribbon panel established to resolve one administration headache or other. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by a former secretary of state, James Baker, and a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, is one such venture. The group, whose creation was urged by Congress, is tasked with recommending new ways for the Bush administration to deal with the war in Iraq. Its report will come out after the November elections, to avoid being politicized.

The group includes establishment stalwarts, including former CIA director Robert Gates, Bill Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan, Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, former defense secretary William Perry, former senator and Virginian governor Charles Robb, and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. While the conclusions of these insiders, well-lubed in the etiquette of American power, are not binding, President George W. Bush will have to take them seriously, because the next Congress is bound to be hostile to "staying the course" in Iraq and might oblige him to do so.

It's still unclear what the group will recommend. Baker, in an interview on ABC last weekend, played his cards close to his chest, but did throw out hints: "I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run.'" He dismissed as unworkable a plan by Senator Joseph Biden thee Council on Foreign Relation's Leslie Gelb to decentralize Iraq and give Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis their own regions, distributing oil revenue to all. Baker argued "there's no way to draw lines" between the three groups in Iraq's major cities, where the communities are mixed.

However, an article in The Times of London suggested a different plan. The group would recommend breaking Iraq up into "three highly autonomous regions." According to "informed sources" cited by the paper, the Iraq group "has grown increasingly interested in the idea of splitting the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions of Iraq… His group will not advise 'partition,' but is believed to favor a division of the country that will devolve power and security to the regions, leaving a skeletal national government in Baghdad in charge of foreign affairs, border protection and the distribution of oil revenue. The Iraqi government will be encouraged to hold a constitutional conference paving the way for greater devolution. Iran and Syria will be urged to back a regional settlement that could be brokered at an international conference."

It's not clear how the conclusions of The Times square with Baker's own dismissal of the Biden plan. However, the likelihood is that the differences are in the details, not in the overall principle of distributing power away from the center, a process explicit in the federal structure mandated by the Iraqi Constitution. In addition, Baghdad's control over Iraq has all but disintegrated, so that any practical plan must take this into consideration. But just how much is unclear. The proposal outlined by The Times, if it is proven true, would suggest substantial dissemination of power. This would create a confederal structure in form, but the partition of Iraq in fact, regardless of claims that the Iraq Study Group has no such agenda.

What of Baker's admission that the mixed nature of urban areas makes the Biden plan unworkable? His focus on Iraqi cities, as opposed to surrounding rural areas, might mean his group will propose some sort of mechanism to leave Iraqi cities "open" to all communities, under separate administrations. If that's the case, however, the scheme would have little practical meaning in places like Kirkuk, where Kurds have the means, and the wherewithal, to pressure their adversaries. As for Baghdad, the challenge would be to isolate the city from the ambient ethnic and sectarian fighting. Like Sarajevo, the Iraqi capital is likely to end up being a mere extension of the wars around it, with the battle lines already drawn between "pure" sectarian neighborhoods.

In reality, the Baker-Hamilton group is less there to engineer a stable future for Iraq than to create conditions for American forces to leave the country. Baker doesn't want to "cut and run", but there is an awful lot of cutting, and not a little hurried walking, in his thinking. The idea is that once Kurds and Shiites fully take security into their own hands in their autonomous areas, the US will be able to substantially reduce its troop levels and withdraw the remainder to safe areas, probably to Kurdistan.

However, partition is a dangerous proposition. A favored course of action of uninspired diplomats, the partitioning of territories has usually visited little more than trauma on countries, accompanied by war. That's what happened in India, Palestine, Korea, Vietnam, Cyprus, and Bosnia, and nothing suggests that Iraq will be any different. Iraqis may today have fallen back on their ethnic or sectarian identities, but that doesn't mean they will accept a foreign plan for effective partition. If anything, this may provoke their hostility and that of many Arabs who will certainly interpret the proposal as an effort to fragment Iraq to Israel's benefit. You will hear the familiar tropes that this is all part of a vast neoconservative project to weaken the Arab world, though members of the Baker-Hamilton team—particularly Baker, a sleek facilitator between big oil and Arab custodians of stalemate—would shudder at such an association.

Finally, asking Iran and Syria to guarantee this process means asking the two states most responsible for destabilizing Iraq since 2003 to oversee its stabilization. That's a typical realist habit, and Baker has long enjoyed transacting with American foes. Syrian President Hafiz Assad allowed Shiite Islamists to kill American soldiers and civilians in Lebanon in the 1980s, but was nonetheless rewarded by Baker and President George H.W. Bush with a blank check for total hegemony over Lebanon in 1990. What Baker can't understand, or won't, is that the Syrian regime survives thanks to the instability of its neighbors. A peaceful Iraq threatens to make Syria, its intelligence services, and the artificial state of insecurity the regime has created to sustain itself, superfluous. Bashar Assad won't feel any compulsion to do the US favors as it prepares to exit from Iraq.

But don't expect Baker to care by then. His brief is to find an "honorable" way for American soldiers to pull out; what comes afterward is no longer in his hands. It's best to wait before judging the final Iraq Study Group report, and Baker is too much of a calculator to cross Bush. But what he ends up writing will be an American document for Americans. Pity the Iraqis if they are once again secondary in deciding their own fate.