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Why DC loves Biden's terrible plan to divide Iraq

Joe Biden in 2009.
Joe Biden in 2009.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

Now that it looks like a Joe Biden presidential candidacy could actually happen, it seems inevitable that people will discuss what are said to be his considerable foreign policy chops. That includes one of his best-known and most controversial ideas: that Iraq should be partitioned into three separate states, one for each of the main sectarian groups.

Except that this is a myth. In fact, Biden never actually proposed partitioning Iraq — but he does he want to divide it along softer, less drastic lines. His plan is that Iraq adopt a federal system in which the country would remain unified under a central government, but power would be shared between three semi-autonomous regions.

Perversely, much of DC, which for years has wrongly mocked Biden for proposing a plan he didn't actually propose, has since come around to seeing both partition (the plan Biden didn't propose) and the actual Biden plan as great ideas that could save Iraq. They're wrong: Either plan would be a catastrophic disaster for the country.

And that speaks to the way that this is all much more significant than just a then-senator whose plan for Iraq was misunderstood and is now being misunderstood in a different way. The lesson is that the DC policy community seems incapable of being anything other than incoherent and confused when it comes to Iraq.

This isn't because the people in that community are evil or dumb, but rather because there is a palpable (and, indeed, understandable) desperation for an easy solution to the problems we helped create in Iraq, when in fact that is a fantasy and any real solution, if such a thing is even possible, would likely demand things from us that we are unwilling to give.

So when you hear people talking about Biden's supposed plan for partitioning Iraq, and especially if you hear them praising Biden's Iraq plan, what you are really hearing is Washington's utter failure on Iraq.

Biden's actual Iraq plan

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Joe Biden (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Joe Biden. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

The distinction between what Biden proposed (federalism) and what people think he proposed (partition) is worth understanding. Partitioning Iraq would create three totally independent countries, one for each major sectarian group.

Biden's actual plan, for federalizing Iraq, would keep Iraq unified under a central government in Baghdad but would create three semi-autonomous regions, also based on sectarian identity.

It's the difference between Yugoslavia, which no longer exists because it was broken into independent countries, versus Indonesia, which is in fact still a country but one where certain regions have unusual autonomy to set policies on, say, education or marriage laws. (The comparison is imperfect: In Indonesia only some regions have autonomy, whereas Biden's Iraq plan would grant all regions autonomy. But the point is that Indonesia's autonomous regions are still part of Indonesia.)

In Biden's actual plan for Iraq, things like foreign policy or trade deals would still be set by the central government in Baghdad, along with some national laws. The country would still share, say, oil revenues. But each region could set, for example, its own education policy. The idea is that Iraq's three major sectarian groups can't coexist peacefully enough to fully share a unified country, but that giving each group more autonomy would satisfy them without breaking apart the nation.

That is still a bad idea for reasons I discuss below, but it's a very different bad idea from the one Biden is accused of (or lauded for) having.

How this all started

The confusion started with a May 2006 New York Times column that Biden co-authored with graybeard foreign policy scholar Leslie Gelb, "Unity through autonomy in Iraq." The column argued that Iraq should be decentralized, "giving each ethno-religous group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests."

Biden actually stated as a premise that partitioning Iraq into separate countries would be bad, and argued that granting these three regions partial autonomy would help prevent that partition.

In other words, Biden's position is explicitly anti-partition. "Things are already heading toward partition," he said, arguing that federalism would help to "prevent" that process of de facto partition. (He also wrote, "Some will say moving toward strong regionalism would ignite sectarian cleansing," which I think is indeed a correct criticism of the Biden plan.)

This plan got caricatured as de facto partition, which over time led to confusion that Biden had literally argued for actual partition. Biden and Gelb tried to address this in a 2007 Washington Post column:

Our plan is not partition, though even some supporters and the media mistakenly call it that. It would hold Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its constitution. A federal Iraq is a united Iraq but one in which power devolves to regional governments, with a limited central government responsible for common concerns such as protecting borders and distributing oil revenue.

But it was too late; the myth had taken hold, and it has stayed in the public consciousness ever since.

Biden was even grilled, in a 2010 interview with ABC News, on why he had supported partition. He responded, "I never called for a partition." PolitiFact looked into Biden's statements on the issue and rated the vice president's statement as "true." Biden, PolitiFact stated, has "consistently upheld the idea of one Iraq with a central government, albeit a more modest one responsible for such things as defense, foreign affairs and sharing oil revenues."

To be clear: Biden's actual Iraq plan is a terrible idea. So is partition.

Basra, Iraq, in June 2014 (STR/AFP/Getty)

Basra, Iraq, in June 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty)

So, no, Biden never called for the partition of Iraq. But the policy he did call for, of a federal state along semi-autonomous sectarian lines, seems like a bad idea as well.

Both plans are meant to solve the problem of Iraqi sectarian groups fighting one another and refusing to coexist. But in fact both plans would make this problem worse. Both plans attempt to solve sectarianism by enshrining sectarianism into law.

Both, for example, would draw hard borders between sectarian regions and expect those regions' governments to serve the interests of one particular sectarian group. That means families who live in the "wrong" region (say, Sunnis who live in the Shia-majority area) would be second-class citizens, assuming they are not simply forced to leave or even wiped out by ethnic cleansing.

Likewise, neither of these plans acknowledges that sectarian conflict is in fact a symptom of deeper problems. For instance, discrimination, lawlessness, and corruption within the regular police and military often encourage people to believe that they need to rely on extralegal sectarian militias to preserve their safety, and to see their neighbors as potential threats who should be eliminated. Both partition and the Biden plan treat sectarianism as the ultimate problem, and in so doing would actually entrench those deeper problems and the violent instability they cause.

Both plans assume that sectarian identities are hard-wired and permanent. In fact, sectarian identity is fluid. Some research suggests that in times of peace and prosperity, people tend to adopt inclusive identities. But when the economy is poor or people feel unsafe, they will often narrow their identities. For example, in Somalia, when the country plunged into famine, people began to identify less with a broad national identity and more with a narrower clan affiliation. That helped exacerbate violence between clans. In other words, sectarianism was a result of Somalia's deeper problems, not its cause. If we had jumbled around Somalia's border, it wouldn't have fixed a thing, because the problems that led to sectarian violence would still be there.

That is just as true in Iraq. If you carve out the Sunni region of Iraq, whether through full independence or just semi-autonomy, that's not going to magically solve the underlying problems of corruption and resource competition and insecurity. Those problems are going to remain, and people are just going to divide along some different set of lines.

Still, the distinction between these two plans matters. The partition plan would create three independent countries with histories of antagonism. Think of India and Pakistan: Before partition, the unified India suffered sectarian violence between Muslims and non-Muslims. Since partition, which itself caused massive ethnic violence, both India and Pakistan still suffer sectarian violence, although now they are also divided between two independent countries that have nuclear weapons pointed at one another and sometimes fight wars.

As for a Biden-plan federalized Iraq, it would avoid this, but it would make the central government weaker, and thus make it harder for that central government to actually address the underlying problems. Those include, for example, corruption in the police force that leads police to only protect people who look like them, or an Iraqi army so weak that the country relies on sectarian militias to enforce security, even though those militias commit atrocities against different sects.

The Biden plan, rather, assumes those problems are unsolvable and should just be enshrined in a new constitution that endorses sectarian discrimination. It tells Iraq to go ahead and only give its citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

That is going to be terrifyingly difficult and take many years no matter what. But either a partition plan or the Biden federalism plan would make it worse rather than better.

This all speaks to DC's total unwillingness to face the truth about Iraq

An Iraqi family in 2003 outside of Mosul, displaced by the US-led invasion (Spencer Platt/Getty)

An Iraqi family in 2003 outside of Mosul, displaced by the US-led invasion. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Unfortunately, much of the DC policy community, having for years rejected both of those ideas, has now come around to seeing them as easy solutions to Iraq's political problems. When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter attended a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, and ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Smith suggested that Iraq would never again return to political unity ("Iraq is no more," he said), Carter agreed. "There will not be a single state of Iraq," he said, suggesting that "a multisectarian Iraq" might no longer be possible.

The whole thing is a big mess. Biden gets criticized for years for taking a position he never actually took. Meanwhile, the actual position he took, which is also worthy of criticism, has since become mainstream, and many in DC have come to embrace the idea they once criticized Biden for suggesting (but that he didn't actually suggest). You sort of get the sense that Washington's policy community is just not capable of holding a coherent or productive conversation about Iraq.

Biden's actual plan is a part of that incoherence; his proposal for Iraq is shortsighted and confused. But Biden's critics in the DC policy community are part of this problem too. They badly misunderstood what he argued, and in any case many of them have since come around to the ideas they once opposed, whether that means fully partitioning Iraq or federalizing it.

It's easy to understand why DC is so incapable of holding a rational conversation about Iraq's problems: The United States bears significant responsibility for creating them. Solving those problems would take many years and tremendous resources, if it's even possible at all.

Partition or federalism end up feeling like attractive policies because they seem appropriately drastic, but also are clear and straightforward and could at least in theory be implemented pretty quickly. The idea that partition might be enough, that we only have to solve the surface issue of sectarian violence, is a lie we tell ourselves to avoid the hard truths about Iraq's deeper problems and how difficult and time-consuming they will be to solve. It's just another version of the lie we told ourselves in 2003, that we would be greeted as liberators and home in time for Christmas.

People just do not want to admit that the problem could be as severe as it really is; it raises questions we simply do not want to ask. How much of a responsibility does the US have to try to fix this? What if it requires lots of American money or even returning American service members, perhaps for many years? Is it fair to ask Americans to go die in Iraq again, given that many didn't want to invade Iraq and don't want to own this problem now? Is it fair to Iraqis that they should suffer for failures that were in part ours?

It's just a horrible series of questions with no real answers, so it's understandable that people would rather talk about easy-seeming solutions such as federalism. Unfortunately, those solutions are not solutions at all, and could just be another chapter in the long story of America's destruction of Iraq.