Departing Responsibly

Departing Responsibly

The political and military scene in Iraq is best described as a series of truces. All parties await America’s exit, and all will try to steer it in their favor. President Barack Obama’s moment can be used either to guide Iraq toward a successful federation or to preside over a failed transfer of power, one in which the United States, with bungled intentions, assists divided Arab centralists in Baghdad to go to war with Kurdistan and with each other.

Leaving Iraq with integrity requires the Obama administration to ensure a secure balance of power within Iraq. That is made feasible by Iraq’s Constitution, properly understood. It also requires the new administration to encourage clear internal territorial demarcations within Iraq’s federation, especially between Kurdistan and al-Iraq al-ArabiM. It will have to inhibit fearful or aggrandizing interventions by Iran or Turkey and the provisioning of insurgents by Sunni-Arab dominated states.

These are very tall orders. They can be met. But they will require the administration to be guided by Vice President Joe Biden’s federalist instincts and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Kurdish sympathies and not by the centralist dispositions of orthodox Arabists found in the State Department, the Pentagon’s planners, and much of Washington’s think-tank commentariat.

Numerous foul legacies shape Iraq. Some are partly America’s responsibility. They include the Baathists’ seizure of power in 1963 and 1968 and, lest we forget, Henry Kissinger’s endorsement of the squalid deal between the shah of Iran and Saddam that crushed the fifteen-year-long Kurdish rebellion of Mustafa Barzani. Expulsions of Kurds, racist Arabization programs, and boundary manipulations followed in Kirkuk and in other “disputed territories,” that is, where local Kurdish majorities live amid Arab and other minorities. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ignored Saddam’s genocidal atrocities in 1987 and 1988. They did not want Iran to win the war Saddam had started. Some even tried to blame Tehran for Baghdad’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians. Later, Kurds and Shiite Arabs were left to flee and fend for themselves after having been called to overthrow Saddam by Bush the elder, who somehow managed to forget he had done so. In the first Gulf War, the “realists”—Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Colin Powell—ended the Baathist looting of Kuwait, but decided not to organize the replacement of Saddam’s regime. It was presidents from Turkey and France and a British prime minister, aided by Americans with a conscience, who obliged the formation of a safe haven for the Kurds. The Shiite Arabs were not so lucky. The U.S.-sponsored UN sanctions of Iraq followed (1991-2003), driven by Saddam’s refusal to comply fully with Security Council orders to destroy weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. The costs were passed to Iraq’s children and those outside Sadda...