Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

20 December 2007

Iraq’s Future

Every once in a while, a single news report provides a glimpse into the future. Sunday’s New York Times article on Najaf is one such report. Everyone who cares about the future of Iraq—and of our troops there—should read it.

The report describes Shiite Iraqis’ plans to make Najaf the capital of a Shiite semiautonomous region, much like Iraqi Kurdistan today. That region, the article suggests, has everything it needs to survive and thrive as an independent entity, a state within a state.

Security is the most important thing any government can provide. Apparently Najafis are now providing it. Disciplined local troops now control entry to the Najaf region. They stop and search every entering vehicle bearing a non-Najaf license plate. Najafis also appear to have resolved disputes between the al-Hakim and al-Sadr factions; the Sadrist forces have redeployed to Baghdad and the countryside. So for the moment, there is peace.

If peace holds, the region’s economic future is bright. Not only does it have the oil in the vicinity of Basra. It also has trade and donations brought annually by a million Shiite pilgrims to the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Many consider that shrine the third holiest shrine in all of Islam, exceeded only by Mecca and Medina. City fathers have plans to increase the pilgrim traffic to three to four million in coming years.

Culturally the Najaf region has much to offer. The Shrine to Ali has surpassing beauty, especially in the setting sun. Edifices of nearly equal grandeur appear in neighboring Karbala, also a holy city. Residents of the area are justly proud of their ancient culture and its re-emergence into the light of freedom after Saddam’s brutal suppression.

The Najaf region even has its own foreign policy. Iran is providing money for a local airport and electrical plant and will provide a large share of future pilgrims to Shiite shrines. At the same time, Iraq’s Shiites are conscious of their ongoing debt to the United States, both for overthrowing Saddam and for continuing protection against inimical Iraqi and foreign forces, including Al Qaeda. American money and expertise have made a local hospital one of the best in Iraq.

It now looks as if the Shiites in power, including al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, are beginning a balancing act. They are trying to stay as neutral as possible while they exploit help from all sides (and the present calm) to reconstruct and develop. If this balancing act continues, Shiite Iraq may end up becoming the Thailand of the Middle East.

What is most encouraging is the sense of pride now emerging from the rubble of war. That pride—in religion, in culture, in self-sufficiency—could motivate all the things that have been missing in Iraq so far: little things like honesty in government, selfless public service, care for and mercy to citizens, and troops that protect, not avenge.

All this speaks volumes on the wisdom of Joe Biden’s call for soft partition in Iraq. I have written two posts on the subject, one in 2006 and one earlier this year. Now partition is really happening: the Iraqis themselves are doing it. The first results are enormously encouraging, as Iraqi Kurdistan and Shiite Iraq begin to form viable, potentially thriving mini-states.

Two things could disturb this pretty picture. The first is our own failure to get with the program and follow the Iraqis’ lead. Dubya has a lot of ego invested in his pipe dream of a fully unified, Switzerland-like Iraq. If we are to realize a much simpler dream, of an Iraq in peace that works, we have to let that pipe dream go.

The second problem may be more difficult: the Sunnis. Many no doubt still wish to regain their status as undisputed masters of Iraq. We have to disabuse them of that notion, not just with troops but with powerful incentives. We must make sure that Sunnis continue to receive a fair share of Iraq’s oil revenue. We must direct a fair share of international reconstruction aid—including our own—their way.

But most of all, we must begin a full-court diplomatic press to engage the neighbors, especially the Sunni neighbors. If the truth be told, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are partially responsible for Saddam’s despotism: they tolerated it as a counterweight to Iran’s influence. So did Syria.

Now these nations can expiate their guilt. They can support Sunni Iraq with development aid and trade. That should be a pleasant task for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are ruled by Sunnis also.

At the same time, all three nations can establish new counterweights to Iran’s influence. Not only can they insure that Sunni Iraq is militarily and economically viable. They also can help Shiite Iraq stay independent of Iran, both by restraining hot-heading Sunnis and by developing trade and diplomatic relations.

The notion that Shiite Iraq would become an Iranian vassal state has always been impossibly simplistic. But it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Sunni and Alewite neighbors ostracize Iraqi Shiites. Intensive diplomacy must make sure that never happens.

Things may finally be resolving in Iraq. It is therefore a time for great intelligence and sensitivity. It is not a time for brute force or grand visions of national unity and reconciliation. If we work carefully with all of our various Iraqi allies and their neighbors, we may end up with much of what we have fought for: stability, peace, economic development, and decisive rejection of terrorism. Those results will be no less an achievement if they appear separately in three separate mini-states.


For an update to this post, see “More on Iraq’s Future.”

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