06/30/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Iraq: Learning From Yesterday and Planning for Tomorrow


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Sunni Muslim organization deemed too radical even for al-Qaeda, is currently advancing toward Baghdad. This should not have come as a surprise, given Iraq's fractured sense of self. Yet before embarking on another adventure to pacify the region, the United States must understand several basic facts that seemed to have eluded the architects of the war of 2003 -- an invasion that ultimately set Iraq up for its present dilemmas.

First, Iraq is not a homogenous nation-state like Japan or Germany. These two countries are relevant because as late as 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was trying to draw parallels between the U.S. occupation of Iraq by referring to Japan and Germany at the close of World War II. Iraq does not fit with either example; it is a country that Britain put together in 1920 by combining three Ottoman provinces with largely distinct ethnoreligious identities: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish.

To assume Iraq will thrive if people simply vote and have freedom of speech is to miss the larger point about Iraq's political make-up.

Second, Iraq does not exist in a vacuum. The conflict between Sunni and Shiite political actors occurs on a geopolitical level, not merely a local one. The Middle East is a fractured political ecosystem that hosts Iranian and Saudi proxy actors that do battle in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and beyond. Putting out a fire in one part of a house does not eliminate every source of flames.

If the international community wants peace in Iraq, it has to concurrently deal with the horrific civil war in Syria, as well as the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Third, Iran has to be part of any solution in Iraq. In yet another illustration of a lack of foresight, George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 handed a political victory to Iran. It turned Iran's historic neighbor-enemy into a country largely run by political figures with deep ties to the Islamic Republic, including the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Iran has legitimate skin in this game, and not coordinating with Iran when battling Sunni extremists only means we would be fighting two wars: one against ISIL and one against Iranian forces trying to sabotage our efforts in the country.

It is essential that policymakers not replicate the challenge Bush brought on the U.S. military when he refused to negotiate with Iran in the early years of the war--when we similarly needed Iran's assistance.

Fourth, democracy based on majority rule is a recipe for bloodshed. Majority rule makes sense when elections are held over political differences, not sectarian identities. As such, Iraq must significantly reform its political system if it is to have any chance at reconciliation. If political majorities continue to dominate unchecked, Shiites in power will have limited incentives to deal justly with the minority Sunnis -- a community that is often unfairly blamed for the oppression that occurred under Saddam Hussein.

A lack of inclusive governance, expressly the kind avoided by Prime Minister Maliki, is exactly the sort of dysfunction that has hampered attempts at Western 'conventional' democracy in Iraq thus far.

So what's the answer? An alternative to majority rule is the kind of power sharing practiced in Lebanon. In Lebanon, high-level positions are guaranteed to members of the Maronite Christian, Sunni, and Shiite sects, and voting is organized so that one has to vote for members of a sect other than one's own. This helps calm sectarian politics, since figures of one group have to reach out to others in order to gain votes.

While Lebanon is hardly a model of stability -- having fought a 15-year sectarian civil war and constantly hosting small-level conflicts -- its model is worth exploring in Iraq. After all, many of Lebanon's ills are related to its shifting demographics in the country. Christians, once the majority, have the greatest share of official power, even though birth rates and migration patterns have turned Shiites into the largest sectarian group today.

It is unlikely that Iraq will experience this kind of demographic shift any time soon. Therefore, Iraq should consider adopting the sectarian power-sharing model that Lebanon offers without having to worry too much about Lebanon's mistakes.

If Iraq can guarantee greater official participation for minority Sunnis, it could have a shot at addressing the political inequalities that have pitted one sectarian group against another since the country's founding in 1920.

How American leaders will choose to address the current crisis is still unclear. One thing, however, is sure: we created the current mess that Iraq is in, and we owe it to them, and to the rest of the region, to play a constructive role -- one that is built upon the lessons we failed to learn the first time. Learning the lessons of yesterday, and forming a concrete and constructive political plan for tomorrow, has to be the necessary first step to any future involvement in that country.

Nathan Gonzalez, editor of Nortia Press and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, is author of two books on the Middle East, Engaging Iran (2007) and The Sunni-Shia Conflict (2009).