Over Thanksgiving weekend, a provocative column appeared on The New Republic’s site suggesting a way out of Iraq that, on the surface anyway, appeals to my sense of justice. Swarthmore Professor James Kurth writes that partition is the solution. But unlike the conventional notions of an Iraq partition into three semi-autonomous states — one for the Kurds, one for the Shi’ites, one for the Sunnis — Kurth says we should grant the Kurds and Shi’ites their sectors, but not the Sunnis, with whom he says we should deal harshly.
Here’s Kurth’s reasoning:
U.S. troops must leave Iraq–but not just yet, and not in the manner many Democrats have suggested. Islamists in general, and Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in particular, are always pointing to past U.S. military retreats–Vietnam in 1975, Lebanon in 1984, Somalia in 1994–as evidence that the American will to wage war invariably collapses as conflicts drag on. As a result, retreating from Iraq now would simply encourage Islamists to attack U.S. allies and targets throughout the world. Before it leaves Iraq, then, the United States must inflict a dramatic and decisive defeat upon the Sunni insurgents–one that will demonstrate the unbearable cost and utter futility of the Islamist dream of establishing a Muslim umma under the rule of a global Sunni caliphate. That defeat must be more than military; it must also be political: The United States should divide Iraq into two parts, leaving the Kurds in control of the north, the Shia in control of the south–and the Sunnis stateless in between.
The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have much to answer for. Since they have always made up a rather small minority–about 15 to 20 percent of the country’s total population–the regimes they created were historically authoritarian ones. They compensated for their small base by employing especially brutal methods against their Kurdish and Shia neighbors. Successive Sunni governments became steadily more repressive, leading eventually to the rule of the Baath Party and culminating in the ferocious regime of Saddam Hussein.
After elaborating on his idea — addressing concerns about how Turkey will react and whether this strengthens Iran, Kurth concludes:
At the end of the day, the United States would be acting as a balancer–helping to balance the interests of Shia Iraq and Kurdistan and the interests of Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. U.S. economic interests in a continuing flow of Persian Gulf oil to the global market would be preserved, and U.S. security interests in containing Iran would be enhanced. But the interests of more than 80 percent of the people of Iraq–that is, the Shia and the Kurds–would be enhanced also. They would be the winners in that tormented country’s new order. The losers, of course, would be the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today.
Kurth’s writing took me back to the start of this misadventure, and reminded me why I supported it. Hussein’s dictatorship had become intolerable, in the fullest sense of the word. His regime’s cruelty: Intolerable. Its belligerence: Intolerable. His corruption of the UN and his European trading partners: Intolerable. His dealings with terrorist groups: Intolerable. His flouting of the UN sanctions and weapons inspection process: Intolerable. Made all the more intolerable after 9/11, when the legitimate fear of his WMD stash ratcheted up the urgency of eliminating him.
George Bush lost his way shortly after Hussein’s fall — perhaps because he forgot who the enemy was. We were not liberating “Iraq” from Hussein, because a portion of Iraq was complicit in his regime. We were liberating the oppressed Shi’ites and Kurds, along with those Sunnis who opposed the Baath party. The civil war now underway should end the American dream of a multi-party, multi-sect state governed democratically, which was another misdirection, I fear. But it doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of the pursuit of justice, and it doesn’t mean we have to accept the war’s end on terms that would result in an Islamist Sunni state.
I don’t know if Kurth is right — I’m not enough of an expert. But the thinking here gives me a sense of hope that a solution exists.
While I was away, I did manage to read Jonathan Chait’s awful, mind-boggling column calling for the return of Saddam Hussein. I half-expected to see a smiley face at the bottom of it: Just kidding! I assume he realizes his foolish proposal will follow him forever. Everything we write on the internets lasts forever, dude. So for all eternity, Jonathan Chait will be known as the guy who thought Saddam Hussein, convicted mass murderer, should be given back the keys to all his palaces. Oh, man.