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Partition Iraq? Over Their Dead Bodies

08/20/2007 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2007-08-20-partitionofindia.jpg Refugees during partition of India, 1947

There is one thing you must never do if you want to be considered a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker in Washington: Don't stop to consider the lessons of history before proposing massive redesigns to another part of the world. Michael O'Hanlon and other Iraq war backers were wildly incorrect in their last set of predictions, but that hasn't stopped them from promoting still more grand schemes. Now O'Hanlon wants to partition Iraq.

Is the government listening? They've already tried to build the Wall.

On first listening, dividing Iraq into three separate nations based on ethnicity might seem to be a good idea. Joe Biden's been pushing the idea for a while now. So what's wrong with the concept? O'Hanlon's track record of error isn't enough reason to reject it, so here are a couple of others.

For one thing, the partitioning of nations has been a human tragedy in the past. Best estimates suggest that half a million people died during the partition of India - it could have been closer to a million - and 12 million were displaced. One observer recounted what he saw as a 14-year-old on board a train taking him from his childhood home:

Thousands of Muslims, men, women and children, all waiting to take a train in the opposite direction, savagely slaughtered before his eyes, killed, stabbed and beheaded.

Three or four trains full of Muslims were due to leave for Pakistan that day. None did.

"I saw Muslims being burnt alive, thrown onto bonfires, I saw bodies, I saw blood, I saw many things," he said. "The madness that very first day could have finished everybody."

Whatever the wisdom of dividing India, a thoughtful analyst might at least think twice before recommending the imposing the same solution in Iraq. But cautionary tales like these aren't enough to stop plucky "scholars" like Michael O'Hanlon from offering their proposals to a friendly audience of the powerful.

That's not to say that O'Hanlon and Edward P. Joseph, who co-authored a paper on the topic, haven't anticipated some of the objections to their plan. In fact, they do more than simply cite those objections, which they do -- with the suggestion that most Iraqi protests are either ill-informed or totalitarian.

They also do what Washington planners do best these days: They use a catchphrase. They say they're advocating something called "soft partition," which they never precisely define. (Apparently it involves the sharing of oil revenues across all three regions, although its other characteristics remain unclear.)

"Surge" instead of "troop increase." "De-Baathification" instead of "firing everybody with qualifications." "Soft partition" instead of "partition." And people say there's no creativity in Washington!

The administration's already been thinking along these lines for some time. In fact, earlier this year they tried to build a three-mile long wall in Baghdad to separate Shi'ite and Sunni neighborhoods. They didn't ask Iraqis in either group what they wanted, though, and they only halted the project after both Sunni leaders and the Iraqi Prime Minister objected to it.

Which gets us to the next problem with partition, whether "soft" or "hard": The Iraqis are against it. They don't want their country broken up into pieces, whatever the texture. Shouldn't that be enough to kill the plan, since we're supposedly "exporting democracy"? Think again. In the effervescent words of Joe Biden: "Like heck we can't tell the Iraqis what to do!"

History now records that Biden was as wrong about the Iraq war as O'Hanlon, while for his part O'Hanlon acknowledges an "intellectual debt" to Biden in his paper. That's like acknowledging a debt to Tom Tancredo for furthering the cause of international brotherhood.

For a reality check, Siun links to the work of Reinar Visser, a scholar with genuine expertise in the region who has dissected the partition idea before. (Fortunately Visser is based in Norway, so he's safely insulated from the treatment Juan Cole and others faced for actually being right about Iraq.)

Hold on, the astute reader will say. O'Hanlon's paper was published in June, but the administration tried to build the wall in April. How can there be a connection between the two?

Answer: There is, but you're reversing cause and effect. The role of the "public intellectual" in Washington is no longer to generate new ideas. That's "pre-9/11 thinking." Today, the foreign policy scholar's job is to provide intellectual cover for decisions that have already been made by the powerful. That's how you get good jobs and generous grants nowadays.

Nice work, if you can get it -- and if you don't worry too much about the consequences of your actions.