Thinking seriously about "centralism" and "federalism" in Iraq – Brendan O'Leary makes the case for pluralist federalism
As the dust begins to settle from the January 2009 provincial elections in Iraq, much remains uncertain, but one thing that does seem clear is that the results included some significant shifts in support for different Iraqi political tendencies, particularly in the balance between the main Shiite Arab political parties.
I will put off discussing most of the competing assessments and speculations that are currently floating around. For the moment I just want to highlight one issue that has attracted a fair amount of attention but (I think) not enough careful thought and consideration: What kind of political future for Iraq should people of good will be hoping for (and trying to help facilitate)?
Here is a typical formulation of the point in question by Juan Cole (back on February 2, as the unofficial election results were just starting to come in):
The big news out of the leaks from Iraq's vote counters is that parties seeking a strong central government appear to have won big in the elections for provincial governments. There had been a split last fall. Some parties, such as the Kurdistan Alliance and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, wanted Iraq to have a very weak central government, which would cede a great deal of Federal power to provincial confederacies such as the Kurdistan Regional Government. In contrast, the centralizers in the Da'wa (Islamic Mission Party) and among the Sunni Arabs, want a strong central state. It is the latter that appear to be coming out on top ...Is that an accurate reading of the political implications of these election results? Maybe--although, as I will explain below, I suspect that putting it this way overlooks some important complications (and even contradictions) inherent in the centralizing agenda allegedly shared by Sunni Arabs and some Shiite parties.
And if "the centralizers" really are getting stronger, would that be a good thing? Not necessarily. Actually, there are good reasons to see it as a potential recipe for disaster.
=> That may sound odd to some readers, since a taken-for-granted preference for political re-centralization in Iraq seems to be so widespread in the conventional foreign-policy wisdom that its problematic aspects rarely get adequate attention. And, to approach this from the other direction, there is also a serious case to be made for the viability and desirability of a more pluralist and federalist alternative. That deserves more of a hearing than it gets.
In the interests of making the discussion a little less one-sided, later in this post I will recommend a careful consideration of the case for pluralist federalism in Iraq by someone who has been one of its most prominent and effective advocates, Brendan O'Leary. O'Leary recently summed up his case in a book on How to Leave Iraq with Integrity. (Yes, he thinks the moment has arrived when that’s a hypothetically possible outcome, if the whole thing is done intelligently and responsibly.) If you want a quick introductory overview of his argument, you can get a good foretaste by listening to a brief on-line interview with him HERE.
But first, some background and elaboration ...
=> One of the key features of the constitutional settlement that emerged from negotiations between Iraqi political forces in 2005, and was then overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum on October 2005, was that it set out to replace the highly centralized state structure of pre-2003 Iraq (dominated, of course, by the Sunni Arab minority) with a more decentralized federal system that also recognized Iraq's multi-national character.
(According to approximate estimates, about 20% of Iraq's population are Kurds, some 55-60% are Shiite Arabs, some 15-20% are Sunni Arabs ... and various other ethnic and sectarian minorities add up to about 5%.)
The big step in that direction, of course, was the acceptance of extensive autonomy for the Kurdish region in northern Iraq (with precise borders and other details to be worked out in time), along with the recognition of both Arabic and Kurdish as national languages. What was left open was whether this "asymmetric federalism" between Arab Iraq and Kurdish Iraq would be the final word, or whether the Arab part of Iraq might also be "regionalized." Mechanisms in the Constitution allow for either of these outcomes, or various options in between.
=> The US mediated those negotiations, but (some mythology to the contrary) did not produce or dictate this Constitution. In fact, the outcome was in many ways quite different from what the US government wanted. The US, for various reasons, has always pressed for a more centralized solution in Iraq. And they're not the only ones. Many of Iraq's regional neighbors, for their own reasons, have also been unhappy with the pluralist and federalist model embodied in the 2005 Constitution. (Actually, the Arab regimes would have preferred to see post-Saddam Iraq ruled by a Sunni Arab strongman who could continue to suppress the Shiites and Kurds. Turkey, for its part, is alarmed by the idea of an independent or even autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, and believes that its concerns somehow give it the right to dictate Iraq's political organization. And so on.)
There have also been serious disagreements between Iraqi political forces over questions of centralization versus pluralist federalism. And this is most significantly true in terms of divergences within the politics of Iraq's Shiite majority.
The central fulcrum of Iraqi politics since 2003 has been a working alliance between the Kurdish parties and the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, or ISCI (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI), which emerged from the 2005 elections as by far the biggest Shiite party. Both the Kurdish parties and ISCI, for their own reasons, converged on support for a more federalist solution.
That remained the center of gravity in Iraqi politics even though, after the December 2005 national elections, complicated multi-party negotiations eventually produced a Prime Minister from a smaller Shiite Islamist party, Dawa. That was Nouri al-Maliki, who looked for a while like a relatively ineffective place-holder but has been looking a lot stronger lately. The other major force in Iraqi Shiite politics, the movement headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, has made its biggest impacts since 2003 through its Mahdi Army militia, but has also gone in and out of participation in electoral politics as the overall situation shifted. The Sadrists seem to be experiencing one of their periods of relative weakness and political marginalization--but, on past experience, one shouldn't be too quick to write them off. Both Dawa and the Sadrists, unlike SCIRI/ISCI, have favored political centralization.
That has also been true for Sunni Arab political forces in Iraq, mostly because of their hope--which always looked like a long shot, and is now looking increasingly delusional--that if the Americans got out of the way, they could crush the Shiites and Kurds, seize control of a centralized Iraqi government, and restore the political supremacy of the Sunni Arab minority. (The Sadrists, for their part, have always had a corresponding winner-take-all aspiration.) Some Sunni Arab political tendencies may be starting to wake up to the realities of the situation, and thus may re-think this approach, but so far it looks hard for them to break free from their reflexive anti-federalism.
=> One result of the Iraqi provincial elections in January 2009 was a shift in the balance between the two main Shiite parties, ISCI and Dawa. ISCI lost a lot of ground compared to its levels of support in 2005 (though not quite as much as the preliminary results had suggested), whereas Maliki and his Dawa party gained. Maliki ran a 'law-and-order' campaign based in no small part on his having successfully cracked down (with US support) on Sadrist militias and (partly overlapping) criminal gangs in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City during 2008. But in some places it looks as though his coalition may wind up getting local support from the Sadrists nevertheless.
Unsurprisingly, one conclusion drawn by a lot of the post-election commentary has been that supporters of a strong central government (and opponents of federalism and decentralization) have been strengthened politically by these elections. (For some of the standard talking points, see HERE & HERE.) That may or may not turn out to be the case, but it's not implausible. If so, how that works out in the long run remains to be seen.
=> What I find more puzzling is the widespread assumption (by analysts and commentators running the gamut from "progressive" opponents of the 2003 Iraq war to self-styled foreign-policy "realists") that this would necessarily be a good thing. There are arguments to be made in support of that assessment--though they need to be made, not assumed. But that conclusion is far from obvious.
In fact, there's an inescapable contradiction built into the whole "centralization" agenda in Iraq. To put it most simply and directly, a powerfully re-centralized government in Baghdad creates a winner-take-all game, and not all the players can win.
For example, both Sunni Arab political forces and some of the Shiite parties (e.g., Dawa and the Sadrists) support a more powerful central government, but that's because each of them hopes that they will be the ones to control it. (Yes, I know that in the case of the Sunni Arabs that sounds wildly unrealistic, but people in politics are often unrealistic--and the positions taken by many Sunni Arabs in Iraq since 2003 don't actually make sense unless this is their underlying premise.) Concretely, these forces have very different and opposing agendas. Among other things, the Sunni Arab parties all agree that de-Ba'athification went too far, whereas the Sadrists believe it didn't go nearly far enough. Even more to the point, it’s not too strong to say that these different "centralizing" factions fear and despise each other (the Sadrist militias, for example, played a central role in reprisal murders and ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arab civilians from 2006-2007), so in practice a move toward political re-centralization is likely to put them at each other's throats more, not less.
Of course, there are also a lot of other political factors at play here that further complicate the situation. But I'm struck by the extent to which foreign enthusiasts for a more powerful central government in Baghdad (including Juan Cole, the so-called Iraq Study Group, Sunni Arab governments, etc.) blithely ignore this obvious problem.
=> On the other hand, can a pluralist regional federalism work in Iraq?
(Again, that question has to be complicated by whether we're just talking about autonomy for Kurdistan, which at this point could be defeated only by large-scale violence--not to mention that selling out the Kurds once again would be politically unwise as well as morally despicable--or about “regionalizing” Arab Iraq as well.)
I'm not sure. But there is a strong case to be made that it's probably the least bad option ... and, as I mentioned, it happens to be a possibility that's authorized by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution (which traditional Arabists like the ones whose voices predominated in the so-called Iraq Study Group report recommend simply tearing up).
This case gets surprisingly little attention in US discussions, either within the government or outside it. As I noted at the beginning of this post, one of the strongest statements of this case has been made by Brendan O'Leary (whose practical background in such matters includes participation in the Northern Ireland "peace process" when that looked like a non-starter, too) in his well-informed and carefully argued just-released book, How to Leave Iraq with Integrity. I don't want to try to restate his case here, so read the book. As a start, you can listen to a brief but quite informative interview with O'Leary about his book HERE .
=> Incidentally ... the US government has pushed from the start for a strong central government in Iraq (the 2005 constitutional settlement represented a defeat for Bremer and the US in that respect). But as O'Leary argues (convincingly, I think), one ironic, and no doubt unintended, side-effect of the alliance of convenience between the US military and the Sunni Arab "Awakening" militias is that this has made it more conspicuously necessary for the Shiite-dominated parties in Baghdad to bargain with the Sunni Arab minority about the future shape of the country.
Whether the various socio-political forces in Arab Iraq are actually able to work out a plausible negotiated settlement (and a "power-sharing equilibrium," as O'Leary puts it), or slip back toward an all-or nothing winner-take-all inter-sectarian bloodbath as US troops withdraw ... is something we will have to wait and see to find out. One of the necessary requirements for a constructive settlement will have to be that the political forces representing the Sunni Arab minority will finally have to give up the dream that they can once again rule Iraq by themselves. But the Shia political forces would have to be willing to act constructively, too.
How these and other imponderables work out depends primarily on the Iraqis themselves. In the meantime, pluralist federalism in Iraq has to be recognized as a serious alternative to both partition and re-centralization, and I think we should all agree that for outsiders to try to force either of those alternatives on the Iraqis (including, let us not forget, that 20% Kurdish minority who are currently thriving in the northern provinces) would be a great mistake.
Yours for reality-based discourse,