A Modest Proposal for How to Avoid a Civil War in Iraq

by Dwight Owen Schweitzer

Former syndicated columnist for the Knight Ridder-Tribune News Service
Posted December 2007 Miami, Florida

Nation building has such a nice ring to it. Bringing democracy to the victims of totalitarianism sounds like such a noble cause and it is. How we choose to do it however, can rapidly change a noble cause into a stupid blunder. The question that confronted us in the Iraq war is simply how do you expect to create a democratic society where the minority has brutally oppressed the majority for decades? We answered by just saying ok guys get in a room and work it out, and we’ll give you some technical advice along the way. I am continually amazed at the inability of the most powerful nation in the world to be so abysmally ignorant of the consequences of the misuse of our power.

The Bush Administration was apparently so obsessed with avenging the murder plot on Bush Sr. by Saddam Hussein that it never asked itself or at least got a satisfactory answer, about how to actually bring a successful democracy to a disparate group of people who had, up to now, only been held together by brutal totalitarian force in much the same way as the former Soviet Union was held together by Saddam’s idol, Joseph Stalin.

Confronted with this unique opportunity, where did the Bush administration choose not to look? Why at our own democracy, our own history and our own model, where we have a system that recognizes not only differences but also our commonalities. I suggest that were we to abolish the 50 states and simply impose a federal system I suspect we would have a second Civil War of our own right here at home. But we have 50 states and each has a significant level of autonomy with a federal umbrella that ties us all together to actually form a more perfect union. What a neat idea. .

Now we have Iraq, a phony country to begin with; thanks to Messrs. Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Orlando, who used the Versailles peace conference to destroy nations not build them, and having created the phony ‘country’ called Iraq , we, who never seem to quite learn the lessons of history, want to make into a phony country once again. If there is a civil war there one ought to ask what that war will be all about. Why self determination of course, exactly the same thing that civil wars have been about for… well lets just say for a very long time. The players there, will be those who are possessed of age old enmities, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in roughly that population order. Each ethnic group however has different aspirations, values and cultural imperatives, and there are surprisingly few common denominators to be found among them except a desire by each for the greatest degree of self determination for their particular ethnic group, it’s religious practices and cultural peculiarities, if not the ability to dominate the others just to be sure, at the least that they can do as they please.

So, one might ask, what are the stumbling blocks to just having three countries? The first is oil and who gets and controls the vast revenues of a commodity that is not evenly distributed throughout the country. A second is that there are still some vestiges of nationalism stirring in the hearts and minds of the subjects of the late régime and we ought not to forget the benefits of a common defense. What we should have tried to orchestrate there is what we did in Japan after we occupied it at the close of WW II. We recreated that country on a democratic model similar to our own while keeping in mind the cultural imperatives of a very different society.

We left them their religion but separated church and state; another neat idea! We gave the people of Japan a parliamentary system and a constitution which the average American would feel pretty much at home with. Yet it was, at the time, as totally foreign to the State Shinto based regime as the details of democracy are to our Iraqi brothers and sisters struggling with what the blazes we are really trying to accomplish there, let alone what our motives and objectives really are.

Could we do in Iraq what we did in Japan? I think the answer is still yes and it is not too late although the clock is ticking louder every day. Of course we should have taken charge of the process at the outset, just as MacArthur did in Japan and forged for the disparate Iraqis a three state, one federal governmental system not dissimilar to our own. A Kurdish State, a Sunni state and a Shiite state with a federal system to control national defense, share fairly the oil revenues, control ‘interstate’ commerce and the list goes on. By this approach we have replaced the threat of civil war with the forces of nationalism held by each group and by that approach alone, have the goals of a civil war, but one that is both bloodless and consistent with conditions, not to mention aspirations, on the ground. Would the Kurds defend their ‘state’ against an insurgency? Would the Sunni’s or the Shiites? I think the answer is yes when they are defending their own way of life rather than an amalgamated society that has a memory of oppression by a minority who they now have an opportunity to even the score with.

So if we really want an exit strategy where we can walk out and with our heads up, lets get back in that room and build the kind of nation in Iraq along lines we truly understand because we have a history to look at to see what works and what doesn’t. In the process, lets follow MacArthur’s example and build one much like our own; after all we have the constitutional ability to change it anytime we want, so if it doesn’t work for them they have a tried and true formula to change it democratically to any other form they like.

In the meantime we need to be sure we are totally out of the oil business in the new Iraq. In a public relations sense no decision could have been worse than our taking charge of rebuilding their oil infrastructure. We should have put it under the control of the UN with a governing body made up of the largest oil producing nations sitting as an interim board of directors so when all is said and done we cannot be charged with just what we are being charged with; that we did it just to get our hands on their oil. No wonder we are in a quagmire there that shows no end in sight and that fewer and fewer Iraqis’ are buying into. It has never been more true that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, not to mention that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Halliburton not withstanding.

If we truly want an exit strategy we should call for another constitutional convention there and present them with a framework they can refine that does not offer any group the ability to use the power of the majority to dictate the day to day lives of the minority.

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