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06/18/2014 09:00 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

Biden Was Right

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS via Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden was right. Let's begin with that.

Biden, back in 2006, was the leading proponent (together with Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations) of a scheme to divide Iraq into three largely autonomous states: a "Kurdistan" in the north, and a region each for the Sunnis and Shi'ites. This plan was, needless to say, not adopted. Instead, America bet on the political prowess of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who was going to form a "reconciliation" government which would give all three groups a share of governmental responsibility in a power-sharing coalition government. This, as it turns out, was a bad bet. If America had forced the Biden plan on Iraq back then, we might be in a radically different place than we find ourselves now.

Or maybe not. It is absolutely impossible to predict the future, especially in the Middle East. Nobody can really say what will happen (or what would have happened) with any degree of certainty. But it's pretty easy to see now that what may be next for Iraq is a de facto implementation of Biden's original plan. The violence which is happening now might have been largely avoided, if the division of Iraq had happened when America still had an overwhelming military presence in the country (say, back in 2006). The Sunni section might have had the time to build up its own governmental and security services, which might have precluded the militant takeover which is happening now. I realize that's a lot of "mights" and "maybes," but that's about as good as you can get in making Middle East predictions, as I mentioned. All you can definitively say is that the chances for a much better outcome would have been higher. Which is, in and of itself, enough to now say that Biden was right.

At the time, Biden's idea was scoffed at by many because it would "redraw the map" of a country we had expended a lot of lives and money to preserve (there were other complaints about the Biden-Gelb plan, too, but this was a big one). However, this ignores the reality of the last century in the Middle East. Roughly 100 years ago, due to the first World War, external "great powers" (mainly Britain and France) drew most of the current lines on today's map of the Middle East. They divvied up the region into countries, sometimes ignoring the reality of which ethnic and sectarian groups lived where. The lines were drawn, and the decrees were made: "this is where Iraq will begin and end." One of the biggest losers in this districting were the Kurds, who are spread in a region crossing the official lines of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But the Brits decided not to create a "Kurdistan," so the Kurdish population got divided into multiple countries' territory.

The Kurdish region in Iraq is about the only real success story (such as it is) for America, as a result of our intervention. The Kurds gained a lot of autonomy (even under the Maliki government), they control a goodly portion of the oil reserves (providing them with a steady income), and they are the friendliest towards America after the war. America, alas, has had to hold them somewhat at arm's length. Kurds gaining control over their own governance in Iraq is fine and dandy, but America can't support any push for a larger piece of land for the emerging Kurdistan because one slice of that land would come from not just a staunch ally of America, but an actual NATO member: Turkey. Turks have been dealing with Kurds wanting to form a breakaway country for a long time, and Turkey is adamant about not ceding any territory for such an experiment. However, if the Kurds could be content with a portion of Iraq (and possibly Syria, which also seems ripe for redrawing some map lines), then Turkey would likely accept such an outcome.

Americans are mostly baffled by the concept of sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shi'a. "They're both Muslim, right?" we say, and scratch our heads in puzzlement. How can they be at each others throats when they both share the same basic religion? This, of course, ignores Western Europe's long history of bloody warfare between Catholics and Protestants, but then not many Americans adequately learn such history in school. Most Americans can't name which side in the current Middle East situation is Sunni and which is Shi'ite, but then most Americans can't now name which side was which in the Thirty Years' War, either.

American foreign policy is rather confusing in the Middle East, as we have never openly backed one sect over the other -- we've never proclaimed that "Sunnis are good, Shi'ites are bad" (or vice versa). This is probably wise, because there are extremists (as well as theocracies and dictators) to be found on both sides of the divide. The two worst examples of theocracy in today's Islamic world include both a staunch American ally and a staunch American enemy: Saudi Arabia and Iran. We decry "Islamism" for wanting to base legal systems on Sharia law, which would oppress women; but then we look the other way for a kingdom which doesn't even allow women to drive a car, because they are our allies.

Iran is Shi'ite, and the Saudis are Sunni, but that doesn't mean America always sides with the Sunnis. And it certainly doesn't mean all Sunnis are America's friends. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, after all. This is only the worst example of Sunni extremism, but by no means the only one or even the most relevant one in the current situation. The group called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or "ISIL" -- also variously called "ISIS," the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria," or even the "Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria") which has taken over a large tract of Iraq is a Sunni organization as well. And then there's the dirty secret -- one seldom admitted in the discussion over American Middle Eastern foreign policy -- that wealthy Saudis and wealthy citizens of other Gulf states (Qatar, for instance) which are nominally American military allies secretly fund Sunni extremist groups to the tune of millions of dollars (perhaps even "hundreds of millions"). Meaning America's allies tolerate the funding of terrorist groups which attack America. This has been going on for a long time -- the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia spent a lot of money creating madrasas (schools) throughout the Muslim world which essentially taught young men to hate who they were told to hate: all the perceived enemies of Wahhabism. Iran, on the other hand, is a Shi'ite state. They also fund terrorist organizations throughout the world -- just a little more openly than the Saudis do. Hezbollah is funded by Iran, for instance, but Hamas is funded by the Saudis. It's tough to keep track of which group is on which side, admittedly. America's basic rule of thumb has been, historically: our friends in the region are those who reliably sell us oil and buy our advanced weapons systems. Religious sectarianism doesn't really enter into that equation.

All of this confusion might lead to the conclusion that what the Islamic world needs is a political movement that could bridge the Sunni/Shi'a divide. Unfortunately for us, this is what existed before we invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government was, technically, non-sectarian. It was also a brutal dictatorship, but there are many such tyrannic governments in the region (some of which are our allies). Hussein cracked down on any and all religious movements, because he (quite rightly) saw them all as threats to his regime. The biggest lie that was sold to the American people in the run-up to the war was that Hussein was somehow in bed with Al Qaeda -- because Hussein would never have encouraged any sectarian movements, out of fears they would eventually topple him.

Instead, we toppled him. What we set up in Hussein's place was supposed to be a shining example for the rest of the region to follow: a secular democracy where power-sharing meant that everyone had a seat at the table, and all groups could live in peace with each other. What happened, instead, was we backed Maliki, a Shi'ite, who has consolidated power and has cracked down on Sunnis, including purging political opponents and shutting out Sunnis from the military and security forces. Iraq, under Maliki, has moved closer and closer politically to Iran. This is a big part of the reason why ISIL is succeeding, because many Iraqis are not very happy with the way things have been going under Maliki.

Which brings us back to the question of what to do now. ISIL has taken over vast swaths of Iraq, and they are one of the biggest fighting forces in Syria. President Obama has refused to ship high-tech arms to the Syrian rebels because of the fear they would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists and be used against us. Instead, the extremists crossed the now-meaningless border from Syria into Iraq, and took over huge stockpiles of high-tech weapons the United States left behind for the Iraqi security forces to use. Damned if we do, damned if we don't, in other words.

This is where we enter "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" territory. Our new goal is to fight ISIL's growing strength, in both Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately for us, this leaves us with some awfully strange bedfellows. In Syria, the Assad government is the primary opponent of ISIL, with the "good" rebels a lesser force who are opposed to both. We could back the good rebels to the hilt, but their main objective is fighting Assad's forces, not ISIL. Backing Assad isn't really an option for America at this point, but he's already got Russia as a major military ally, so this doesn't really limit his options in any way.

In Iraq, we have one major power that shares our common goal of crushing ISIL. Unfortunately, it is Iran. Iran has the capability and the will to put "boots on the ground" in Iraq -- which America does not (especially that part about "the will"). We have the ability to dominate the airspace, though, which would be less risky for American servicemembers than entering into another ground war. To do so effectively, we would almost have to coordinate with Iran's forces. As even uber-hawk Lindsey Graham recently pointed out, though, we fought alongside Stalin in World War II, so fighting alongside Iran to take back Iraq shouldn't seem all that strange.

An alliance with Iran -- even a temporary and limited alliance to achieve objectives only in Iraq -- would indeed be a strange thing to most Americans, though. But it might be our best option, from a list of possible actions that now spans the spectrum from "bad" to "unthinkably horrible." If America and Iran could somehow sweep ISIL out of Iraq and contain them within Syria, it would be a military victory. It also might lead to a further thawing of relations between Iran and the U.S., as both realize that, in certain times and in certain places, our objectives can overlap. This prospect is a terrifying one for our Sunni friends in the region, who have long worked to contain Iran's geopolitical strength. But they really shouldn't be able to have things both ways -- if they truly are our friends, then why do they turn a blind eye to their own support of America's terrorist enemies so often? It puts into perspective Iran's state support of terrorist groups, to a certain degree.

As I said, there are no good options in Iraq and Syria, and there never really were once the initial decision to invade Iraq was agreed upon by American politicians (of both parties, I might add). We have destabilized not only Iraq but the entire region by ousting Saddam's regime. Many American pundits and politicians are currently pointing the finger of blame all over the place, in an effort to explain who was more wrong about Iraq. This article is too short to even address all of this bickering, though. Instead, I decided to focus today not on who was wrong, but rather on one person who now seems to have had the right idea.

Dividing Iraq into three separate federated states might not have been a panacea. There still would have been political disagreements, and there may even have been a lot of violence from militias and car bombs and terrorists. But the plan to give the three big groups in Iraq their own government and their own territory at least had a chance of working out much better than the situation we now find ourselves in. At the time, proponents of the tripartite plan warned that if we didn't divide Iraq in three, then all we were doing was postponing an inevitable civil war within the country. These warnings now appear to have come true.

It may not have solved everything, but dividing Iraq up at least had the best chance for success. It might have allowed what is happening now to have happened in a more organized fashion, with a lot less violence and death. Or, to put it another way, Joe Biden was right.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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