Some Form of Formal Partititoning Is Still the Answer for Iraq

03/30/2015 10:30 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Unfortunately, in the 24/7/365 media age, fear mongering has never been easier. The around-the-clock cable news coverage of an extremely rare event -- a co-pilot's alleged mass murder of passengers aboard one of 40 million flights worldwide annually -- is a case in point. But the cynical use of fear happens with more mundane things too -- for example, in advertisements for mouthwash and filtered water. To stay alive all of these millennia, the human race became susceptible to fear baiting, even when that fear is quite irrational.

As happened after the fiasco that was the Vietnam War -- when the "Vietnam syndrome" led to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter being wisely chary of U.S. foreign interventions -- the American public and even potential Republican presidential candidates became less interventionist after the long quagmires in Afghanistan in Iraq. Unfortunately, this second round of preference for overseas restraint didn't last very long. After the radical Islamic State group lopped off a few American heads on video, the public has increased its support for U.S. military intervention, the Obama administration went back into Iraq to help battle what is more of a threat to the Middle East region than to the United States, and Republican presidential candidates -- even Rand Paul -- have become more hawkish.

Yet at the same time, foreign policy "experts," such as Fareed Zakaria and the Republican-leaning Richard Haass, have finally seemed to land in the camp of more U.S. restraint overseas. On his program GPS (for "Global Public Square"), Zakaria recently discovered that most of the Islamist terror groups are mainly threats to their region, but when the United States supports autocratic regimes against them, only then do they start attacking the United States. Zakaria then quoted George W. Bush as having said that decades of supporting authoritarian governments hadn't improved U.S. security. Hurray for Fareed; he finally gets it! Unfortunately, as Zakaria pointed out, Bush may have gotten this part right, but his solution -- invading a country to attempt to eliminate the autocrat -- went terribly wrong, only generating terrorism, chaos, and civil war.

On the same show, Haass announced that the United States, from now on, would need to intervene less directly overseas and instead help one side or the other in conflicts with money or arms. He also opined that Iraq was no more and was in fact effectively now three partitioned entities -- the south controlled by the Shi'i government (really Iran-backed Shi'i militias), the northeast controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga militias, and the northwest controlled by the Sunni Islamic State group. He further said that the United States might need to accept this states of affairs, including an Iranian-dominated south.

A few of us have been making the points of these newly converted luminaries for years and have gotten very little credit for being right. It has long been apparent that Americans prefer to remain ignorant of the fact that their own government has had a big role, stretching back to the Cold War, in facilitating the rise of Islamist radicalism in one way or another. As for the devolution of Iraq, I counted only four analysts -- including me and Joe Biden before he became vice president -- who thought the United States could extricate itself from Iraq by helping the three groups -- Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds -- peacefully devolve into a loose confederation of autonomously governed entities or even an outright "soft" partition by negotiation. In my book Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, written some years ago but never more relevant now, I said that if Iraq was not partitioned peacefully, it would be divided by war. Unfortunately, the latter has occurred.

Yet the U.S. government and other governments -- with their own restive minorities, which give them an interest in preventing the disintegration of foreign countries -- still haven't faced this reality. Some argue that even if some form of partition occurred, the groups would fight anyway over the new borders, such as they did in the bloody partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan in 1947. Carefully drawing the boundaries between groups would be necessary but is not impossible. Academic research shows that the bloody partitions of South Asia and Northern Ireland and Ireland resulted from boundary creation that left a large minority population inside the line, thus threatening the majority populace. The research shows that if the boundary lines are drawn so that 10 percent or less of the population is of the minority group, the majority group will not be fearful, and peace has a greater chance. For example, when Northern Ireland and Ireland divided, about a third of Northern Ireland was Catholic and the rest was Protestant, leaving the majority fearful and leading to decades of strife. In contrast, Ireland has a Protestant minority that makes up less than 10 percent of the population, and much less violence among the groups has occurred there than in the North.

In Iraq, the idea would be to draw boundaries close to ethnic or sectarian lines -- which the British and French failed to do after World War I in the Middle East -- but perfection is not necessary. When creating autonomous regions or even new countries, the central government is thus dissolved or weakened so that the groups don't fight over control of it. The history of Iraq has been one group controlling the central government and using it to oppress the other groups. Although historically it was the government of a Sunni minority oppressing the others, since the U.S. invasion and occupation, it has been a majority Shi'i government oppressing the others as payback.

The brutal Islamic State group gets support from Sunni areas of Iraq because the Sunnis fear it less than they do oppression by the Shi'i government and its militias. If Sunnis were allowed to govern themselves in an autonomous area or as a new country, they would no longer fear the Shi'i central government and would be more likely to throw out the Islamic State group, as they did its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation.

Since much of the conflict in the Middle East now is rooted in the Shi'i-Sunni divide, partitioning in some form -- so that state borders more accurately reflect ethno-sectarian boundaries -- may be a good solution elsewhere as well. It is an urgent need in Iraq now.