WASHINGTON — During the Iraq war, a plan to split the country into three regions that was advocated by thinkers like Les Gelb and then-Senator Joe Biden could never compete with the prevailing nation-building strategy of the time. But now, as the country descends into chaos with the advance of ISIS, Gelb says he is “overwhelmed” by calls from people saying he was right.
People are calling him and saying, “My God, what you were saying back then made sense,” Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday.
Those who argued that Iraq should either be allowed to split into three separate countries — one for Shiites, one for Sunnis, and one for Kurds — or morphed into a decentralized federal system weren’t taken seriously by most of the foreign policy decision-makers of the day and certainly not by the Bush administration, which pushed a nation-building program on Iraq inspired by the neoconservative thinkers who were greatly influential at the time. It was a small group, with Biden as its most high profile voice. Now, a decade later, with ISIS advancing, a potential sectarian war brewing and an independent Kurdish state a de facto reality, those who argued that Iraq was an unnatural construct in the first place and should be allowed to follow impulses toward separation are feeling vindicated.
“It certainly is turning out as I expected,” Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat and adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, told BuzzFeed on Monday. “To me, the issues were as clear 10 years ago as they are now.”
In a 2006 Time essay titled “The Case For Dividing Iraq,” Galbraith argued that the country was “broken” and that partition was not only the best option for Iraqis but also for the U.S., as an exit strategy from the war.
“My argument was that we ought to adjust to the reality that had already taken place,” Galbraith said. The Iraqi constitution, he pointed out, is a “is a very, very decentralized constitution.”
Gelb and Biden were advocates of a plan that would not allow Iraq to split apart entirely, but one that would change its governing system into a federal one with three united but largely independent states.
“I don’t remember our having any supporters,” Gelb said in an interview. “All the Middle East experts disagreed with us and they kept on calling our proposal a proposal for partition. A federal system is not partition, the U.S. has a federal system.”
“We were kind of shocked at the opposition,” Gelb said.
Galbraith’s idea was also not taken seriously.
“The worst thing in government is to take an unconventional position and be right,” he said. “People don’t forgive you for that.”
Gelb was careful to note that his and Biden’s plan was not the same as Galbraith’s plan. “I didn’t agree with the Galbraith proposal then and I don’t agree with it now,” he said. But both agreed that the moment may have passed for either of their plans to achieve their ideal outcomes. An independent Sunni state would now likely be controlled by the violent ISIS, which would be a doomsday scenario for Iraq’s Shiite majority.
“It’s probably too late now,” Gelb said. “We have to try but it’s probably too late.”
“Clearly it would have been better 10 years ago to accept the reality because then Sunnistan would not be an ISIS state, it would be something that was more tolerable,” Galbraith said. Still, he said, “It’s really a matter of time and not very much time before they go to full independence.”
As for Biden, the highest-profile supporter of such a plan at the time, Gelb said the vice president still supports a potential federal system in Iraq.
“He still agrees with it, still wants to try,” Gelb said. “He’s realistic and understands that it’s a long shot.”
Gelb said that other than Biden, he doubted there was much support inside the administration for such a plan.
“Last I looked, didn’t Obama send Biden off to Latin America?” he said. “I was kind of shocked at that. He’s the most knowledgeable senior official in the administration on Iraq.
Everybody’s grasping at straws now because they aren’t very sure what’s going on or what can be salvaged.”