THE BLOG
07/02/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Cantonization of Iraq

Targa via Getty Images

The public debate about the future of Iraq has locked on two options -- partition along confessional-ethnic lines or a unity government. Both proposals have problems. Partition would create several hostile mini-states that are likely to war with each other. A unity government would give Sunnis and Kurds enough of a voice -- and share of the spoils -- to satisfy their expectations, but is not likely to come about. Iraq would be better served, and those who cajole it would be wise to promote, strong autonomy for the country's 19 provinces. If most domestic matters and even some matters of foreign affairs (e.g., trade) are left to each region -- most of which are populated mainly by one of the contesting groups or another -- it will become easier to form a national unity government because the range of issues that will have to be decided by the central government will greatly decline in importance. And the various groups will be more able to satisfy their preferences to govern themselves and, if need be, defend themselves. This is a form of mixing elements of partition (without breaking up Iraq) with some elements of a national unity government, and the best illustration of how it can work can be observed in what has been long taking place in the Kurdish areas. They have been governing themselves, have not supported the insurgency, nor the various terrorist groups, and they have participated in the national government.

The reasons that the Sunni are extremely unlikely to be satisfied if all they gain is a greater role in national government, but not much more regional autonomy, run far and deep. They have been lording over the Shia for decades and have a hard time accepting that they are now a defeated, minority group. The Shia have, on the other hand, had a hard time letting go of having been abused by the Sunni for decades on end. And, as it is well known, both groups consider each other heretics, each is supported by a different array of foreign powers, ranging from Saudi Arabia and its millions (for the Sunnis) and Iran and its operatives (for the Shia), but, most importantly, is the fact that in any fair and free elections, the Shia are likely to command a majority given Iraq's demographics (roughly 60-65 percent Arab Shia, 15-20 percent Arab Sunni, and 17 percent Kurdish). Thus, even if the Sunnis are allotted whatever is proportionally "theirs," say in terms of the share of oil revenues, they are unlikely to be satisfied. Being able to largely govern themselves in the parts of Iraq in which they remain the majority is much more likely to take the sting out of the fact that, while they were once the governing elite, they are now a national minority. Moreover, there are strong indications that if the Sunnis are allowed much more self-government, they would not tolerate ISIS for long.

True, there is a catch to the idea that what Iraq needs is a much more decentralized federation than it currently is: Baghdad is mixed with both Shia and Sunnis. To separate them into segregated neighborhoods, each with a measure of autonomy (as one may observe in Brussels) would not be easy and may even require some population exchanges. Such a separation may even require additional barriers (critics call them "walls"), which have already worked in Israel to greatly reduce inter-group hostilities, but such a measure raises several issues concerning individual rights. Those who are quick to oppose additional segregation along ethnic and confessional line s- -and who oppose erecting barriers -- should note, first of all, that if peace and nation-building and a brighter future are attained, the barriers can be taken down even more quickly than they can be erected, and integration can occur.

Above all, we should not compare proposed solutions to some ideal state in which the wolf and the lamb will lie together all working for the betterment of Iraq. Rather, proposed solutions should be compared to those at hand. Compared to simple partitioning or unification, an enhanced federalism seems quite promising and realistic.

Of course, the cantonization of Iraq could lead to greater participation among the distinct regions, leading to further division. However, one notes that Iraqis of all stripes have a measure, albeit weak and attenuated, of national loyalty. They realize that the mini-states a partition would fashion would be economically much weaker than Iraq currently is. Hence, although they remember that Iraq was cobbled together by foreigners, they now consider it their own. Polls suggest that, given much more room to govern and protect themselves, they would rather live in a cantonized Iraq than in an Iraq that has been sliced apart.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University.