David A. Andelman: Iraq According To Its Sheikhs

Davis Andelman, EditorWelcome to the debut of The World Policy Blog, what we at World Policy Journal believe will be a whole new way of looking at the globe – not from an American perspective of “foreign” being everything outside the United States, but a world in all its variety and fascination, how nations, regions, and people interact among themselves. Our goal is to build a community of informed individuals who will come together here to exchange views or simply absorb interesting, perhaps controversial, but always provocative takes on events or trends that are shaping the world where we live – a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of human beliefs and emotions.

As a first step, today, I’d like to tell you, the members of this community (simply by virtue of your coming here to read our thoughts and observations – we will never require you to identify yourselves) about a gathering at World Policy Institute last week. We had a visit from 11 Iraqi sheikhs and provincial governors, representing critical regions in this war-torn nation.

They had come from a previous stop at the United Nations where, we’d learned, they had spent considerable time detailing their concerns over unrest, even corruption, in their homeland – a conversation that had continued nearly an hour past its scheduled ending. So it was late morning when they arrived at our offices. What did they want from us? Clearly top of mind was what we thought might happen to their nation as pressure in the United States builds for a withdrawal of American forces.

To start off the discussion, I decided to raise a scenario that I detail in my latest book, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. My prediction is one that has been seconded by such distinguished individuals as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations – that Iraq ultimately will be divided into at least two, more likely, three separate nations, that may ultimately be loosely linked in some regional grouping much like the European Union, Gulf Cooperation Council, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Effectively, this move in Iraq would be to undo the colossal errors committed by the self-centered and ill-informed peacemakers who assembled in Paris in 1919 to redraw the world’s boundaries – forcing together into one nation Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, a myriad of feuding, often hostile tribes who had spent decades in conflict and varying levels of hostility.

Already, another artificial, meta-stable nation called Yugoslavia, assembled by the peacemakers in 1919 out of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims, has come apart, creating (so far) seven new and relatively peaceful nations, some of them newly-minted members or candidate-members of the European Union and NATO. So why not Iraq today?

No sooner had I presented this scenario to our Iraqi guests, and it was translated, they exploded – almost to the last man. It was as though I had thrown a flash grenade into their midst. Each proceeded to debunk (quite strenuously) what he saw as a direct threat to their national sovereignty, their very nationhood – launching into an extensive discussion of the ancestral unity of Iraq as a unified nation. Each ignored the reality that, certainly until the end of the First World War, Iraq was simply a group of outlying provinces in the Mesopotamian region of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Istanbul-trained Sunni officials dispatched by the empire’s ruling Sultan and his Sublime Porte.

Even as we tried gamely to change the subject – to the economy, the pace of American troop withdrawals – the sheikhs and other officials kept returning to their theme of national unity. It was an ironic, bordering on comic-opera, performance and I quickly recognized its origins.

First, there was the particular irony in terms of the composition of the delegation itself. While there were nine sheiks and two other civilian leaders, each hailed from a different tribe, both Sunni and Shiite, together for now perhaps, but for how long? They were a living confirmation that the “nation” of Iraq remains a kaleidoscope of tribal allegiances and alliances. At the same time, there was among this delegation not a single representative of Kurdistan prepared to standup for a united Iraq. Not surprising.

Kurdistan is the most likely immediate candidate for a breakaway nation out of the territory that is nominally Iraq. It is ethnically relatively homogeneous and, with its own revenue sources from modest petroleum reserves, already quite self-sufficient. As such, it has actively been pressing for independence. It could serve as a real model for the rest of the artificially constituted nation of Iraq. Imagine, three countries carved from Iraq – a Kurdish state in the north; a Shiite state in the south, with the bulk of Mesopotamia’s oil reserves, closely allied with neighboring Shiite Iraq; and a smaller Sunni nation in the region around Baghdad, closely tied to its large, wealthy Sunni neighbor of Saudi Arabia.

Back to the sheiks: the second, and more critical reality, was the fact that all 11 of these representatives of an independent Iraq owed their jobs, their very livelihood, to the maintenance of a single American-backed nation. They had a lot vested in this concept. And they want to see it played out to its successful conclusion. When is that likely to be? Not in the next few months, they gamely admitted. But certainly within two years. We have, it seems, a moral and legal obligation to see things through, but they likely wouldn’t tolerate us for more than two years regards of the outcome. Which could prove correct, but only if you trust that the latest news out of surge-protected Iraq suggesting greater stability and a reduced level of violence will continue to play out – with a trend toward greater self-sufficiency and self-policing.

By the end of two hours with our visitors, they had failed to persuade this commentator, at least, that the artificial nation of Iraq has the potential of long-term stability for its people. They had persuaded me that there are Sunni and Shiite leaders and communities who have big stakes invested in it. Above all, we were and remain prepared to accept our differences and discuss them – vigorously, perhaps, but rationally. Isn’t this a first step, after all, toward real democracy?

Which brings us back full-circle to the theme of The World Policy Blog. Certainly we have no intention of turning this into another Iraq political commentary. Our goal is to examine the world in all its variety, complexity, and fascination. Each nation, each people I am persuaded, if left alone to their own devices (what Woodrow Wilson back in 1919 termed “self-determination,” thereby coining a mantra for the next century) ultimately winds up with a government, a political, social, and economic system that suits them and works for them. It is up to none of us to dictate what these systems might be – indeed what form democracy should take, or whether it is right at all for every nation and every society.

Our summer issue of World Policy Journal will deal with global trade – the impact of trade (free and otherwise) on nations and economies in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. But we will also take some compelling and original looks at the United Nations and a variety of regional issues. This fall, for our 25th anniversary number, we will examine a host of different, often provocative, takes on the shape and texture of our planet 25 years from now.

I encourage our global audience to contribute, chime in, argue, and debate – pick holes in our arguments and suggest alternatives that will help to set the global agenda as we move into new administrations and distinctly new eras in the United States and on every continent. This is the nature of The World Policy Blog.

David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

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