Iraq: Biden’s controversial vision
by Bryan Bender on 29 Sep 2008 0 Comment

In May 2006, at the height of the violence in Iraq, Senator Joe Biden floated a controversial proposal: carve out autonomous regions for the three main ethnic and religious groups - Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Arab Shi’ites - and give them control of most governmental functions except for the military and oil industry, which would remain under central authority.

 Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, eventually pushed through a congressional resolution backing such a federal system in Iraq, but the plan was resisted by most Iraqi leaders and many Middle East specialists who said it would break up the country and fuel more violence.

 Two and a half years later, as Biden runs for vice president, his prescription remains a key component of his claim to foreign policy expertise - and a talking point for Republicans who question his judgment. Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign insists that Biden "has been soundly proven wrong by the [US military’s] surge strategy" championed last year by the GOP candidate.

 Biden, however, still insists that his approach is the right one and has convinced his running mate, Senator Barack Obama, of its merits. "Both senators Obama and Biden continue to believe that federalism is a good solution if that’s what the Iraqis decide," said Wendy Morigi, an Obama spokesman.

 While there remain many detractors who insist that Biden’s proposal is unworkable, a growing number of them assert that a rough approximation of what Biden envisioned - a decentralization of power - appears to be taking shape anyway. "He was trying to find sensible solutions during a time when his colleagues were just calling for timetables to get out," said John Hamre, chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee. The plan was "a recognition that a ‘soft partition’ was inevitable and therefore we should anticipate it."

 Michael O’Hanlon, an Iraq specialist at the non-partisan Brookings Institution, does not believe that Iraq is closer to the type of tripartite structure Biden advocated, pointing out that the national army and other security forces have improved and the central government appears to working together better than ever. But O’Hanlon acknowledged that "there is still a certain reality about the trends [Biden] predicted," namely that the country is now largely geographically divided.

 Baghdad is now mostly Shi’ite after sectarian warfare forced Sunnis to flee. Kurdish forces in the north have consolidated their territorial claims. Across the country, all 18 provinces - many of which are dominated by a single ethnic group - are holding their first elections later this year, thereby preparing to assume more power.

Biden put forward his proposal during a period of record violence among Iraq’ s ethnic and religious factions. In an op-ed in The New York Times titled "Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq," he and his longtime confidant Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations proposed that the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite regions "be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration, and security… The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues," they wrote. "Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multi-sectarian and international police protection." The article pointed out that Iraq’s constitution "provides for a federal structure and procedure for provinces to combine into regional governments."

 Despite winning approval of the congressional resolution, nothing else came of it, much to Biden’s frustration. "I just couldn’t figure it out," he told the Globe last. "I am willing to risk my career on the fact that this is going to be a seminal moment in this war, in this debate."

 Most independent specialists simply didn’t agree - and believed that any US-sponsored action aimed at separating the country would be a recipe for civil war. Many still do. "I argued with his staff about this. Iraqis saw it would fuel or speed the demise of Iraq into totally separate states," said Judith Yaphe, a professor at the National Defense University and former Iraq analyst at the CIA. "He was correct that the Iraqi constitution calls for federalism. The problem was that the Iraqis’ understanding [of what that means] and Joe Biden’s assumptions didn’t match."

 Retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes, a former adviser to US occupation authorities in Iraq, said Biden’s plan was too risky. There would be too many unintended consequences, including destabilizing neighbouring countries with large Kurdish, Shi’ite, and Sunni populations. "We would be paying for it right now in lots of blood," Hughes said. "Regionally, it would really upset seven nations."

 Still, some specialists, looking back at the last two years, now believe that Biden may have been on to something. Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies, still opposes the Biden framework but acknowledged that Iraq appears to be growing apart by violence if not by politics. Since Biden made his proposal, Cordesman said, "You have had a whole series of adjustments along ethnic and sectarian lines. In mixed areas, five million people have been displaced."

 "We ended up in 2008 along the path that Biden was prescribing," added Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army colonel who is head of the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Iraq is heading toward what Krepinevich called a "de facto soft partition - as opposed to a planned partition - as a result of the sectarian violence." Others agree that political power is also growing on the local level. "Iraq seems to be reconciling itself to powerful provincial governments that run the day to day governance," said Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

 "What [Biden] said was that at some point they would have to decentralize," added Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. "Now, with provincial elections, they are talking about giving more power to the provinces." Biden, on the campaign trail, was unavailable for comment. But last week he told reporters that he believes that in general terms what he called for "is happening now."

 "They may not want to call it what I was talking about, but the end result is there is a lot of autonomy in Anbar province today, there is a lot of autonomy up in the Kurdish area today, and there is increasing autonomy" in the Shi’ite areas, Biden said. His co-author Gelb added, "What Joe and I were pushing for is still the reality of things" - The Boston Globe (

Courtesy Truthout

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