O’Leary on the nonexistence of “Iraq”

The case for a profound federalism.

Brendan O’Leary, who holds a named chair in political science at Penn and is now in Baghdad working for the Kurdish regional government as an adviser on the Constitution-making progress, has a thoughtful and tightly-argued essay up, arguing that when it comes to the country called “Iraq,” there’s no there there: Kurds, he says, don’t think of themselves as Iraqis, and the history of oppression of Shi’a by Sunni in Iraq makes it unlikely that Iraqi (or, as O’Leary calls non-Kurdish Iraq, “Mesopotamian”) Sunni and Shi’a will work and play well together.

O’Leary’s piece is worth reading in full, and slowly, both for the background he provides and because his words presumably reflect, or at least do not conflict with, the views of the Kurdish leadership. By the same token, it needs to be read carefully, since the essay is partly a diplomatic act; if O’Leary praises Khalilzad, it may mean that he thinks Khalilzad has done something praiseworthy, or that O’Leary would like Khalilzad to be helpful to the Kurdish cause.

O’Leary is, on the other hand, strikingly undiplomatic about the Bush Administration. For someone who works for the most pro-American elements within Iraqi borders, and who regards the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as an excellent result, to refer to “the mistakes — and indeed any crimes of the Bush Administration” ought to be more than a little disturbing to those who still think the Iraqi matter has been competently handled.

Or consider this rather blistering passage:

The Bush administration has neither been a competent imperialist, as suggested by its European critics, nor an intelligent democracy-exporter, as claimed by some of its supporters. If it had been comprised of the ruthless oil-stealing imperialists its opponents imagine then dividing Iraq, and having a sovereign Kurdistan and a sovereign “Shi‘astan” able to supply large amounts of oil to the world-market would have been its smart strategic choice. In short, it has not sought to do what Osama bin Laden has said it is trying to do.

If, by contrast, as it has claimed, the Bush administration had been interested in promoting a democratic Iraq, and transforming the Middle East, then it would have worked out a long time ago that it should support and broker a settlement between Kurdistan and the United Iraqi Alliance, while encouraging them to make a settlement that was fair to Sunni Arabs — which is not the same as supporting their so-called leaders’ unappeasable demands.

Hat tip: Normblog.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com