16 September 2007 - The Federal option
Last week, General David Petraeus testified in the Senate that the U.S. troop surge has been successful enough that some troop withdrawals can begin in the next few months. Iraq remains a very dangerous place, however, with an uncertain future. The achievements thus far—holding democratic elections, approving a constitution, sharing oil wealth among the various provinces—risk being destroyed by violence.
While I was in Utah the week before, I was surprised to read a column in the local paper by nationally-syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer suggesting that Iraq be divided up into regions, largely along ethnic and sectarian lines. In fact, Krauthammer says, this is happening on the ground already, and therefore a division would be more likely to succeed, since it would reflect what Iraqis want.
I remembered reading a strident criticism by Christopher Hitchens a few months back of the idea of partitioning Iraq. Hitchens said: “In that event, we would quite probably not end up with three neatly demarcated mini-states, one each in a three-way split among Sunni Arab, Shiite, and Kurd. Instead, there could be partitions within the partition, with Iran and Saudi Arabia becoming patrons of their favorite proxies and, in the meantime, a huge impetus given to the "cleansing" of hitherto-mixed cities and provinces.”
Krauthammer does not go as far as saying that Iraq should be divded into separate countries. You need the central government, he says, to keep the regions in balance and prevent military intervention by Iraq’s neighbors. But partition in some form, he says, is inevitable: “Perhaps today's ground-up reconciliation in the provinces will translate into tomorrow's ground-up national reconciliation. Possible, but highly doubtful. What is far more certain is what we are getting: ground-up partition.”
The idea of strong regional governments in a federal Iraqi state has its precedents. The United States, after all, did not build a powerful central government until 1789, thirteen years after it declared independence from Britain and six years after defending that indpendence on the battlefield (in a war that was partly a civil war, since many colonials fought for the King against their rebellious neighbors.)
In South Africa, federalism was put forward by the liberal parties during the negotiating process between the ANC and the apartheid government. The idea was to convince minorities to accept majority rule in exchange for the prospect of governing at the provincial level. Indeed, in the 1994 election, the National Party won the Western Cape and the Inkatha Freedom Party won in KwaZulu-Natal.
The federal system has not worked terribly well in South Africa, owing to the increasing dominance of the ANC over the course of the past decade and a half. The ruling party now controls all nine provinces and has reduced them to administrative appendages that take their orders from party HQ. When the opposition has governed at the provincial level, however, it has charted a more independent course.
While I was in Israel this past summer, I began to wonder if some form of federalism might work in Israel—first, to provide a check on the power of the central government, and second, to provide regional political power to minorities, such as Arabs and Orthodox Jews, in order to improve overall social cohesion. It could even help resolve the external conflict with the Palestinians.
There are many different versions of federalism, and different federal units might choose to govern themselves differently within the bounds of the overall system. The beauty of it is that it makes room for diversity within a single nation. The danger is that it can create a central government that is too weak—or even, in some circumstances, create ways for a dominant ruling party to expand its power.