Iraq Needs Unity


Dec 30, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 30, 2005.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- High voter turnout in the recent Iraqi elections demonstrates that democracy can mobilize the Iraqi people. What remains to be seen is whether democracy will also unite them, or drive them apart. Election returns are not encouraging on this score.

The "National Strategy for Victory" issued by President Bush identifies "six core assumptions" underlying his approach to Iraq. These are that:

  • Iraqis would prefer to live in freedom rather than tyranny.
  • Most Iraqis will not embrace the rejectionist cause.
  • Democracy is more than elections. It requires institutions and a national compact.
  • Federalism will not lead to the breakup of Iraq.
  • National unity is in the interest of all the Iraqi communities.
  • Iraq needs and can receive the support of its neighbors.

The last three of these assumptions are dubious.

Federalism is a concept foreign to the Arab world, representing a system of government unfamiliar to Iraqis and to the region. Federalism did not hold the Soviet Union together after the fall of communism, nor did it hold Yugoslavia together after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Many Iraqis believe it unlikely to do any better for their country.

While the Bush administration undoubtedly feels that national unity is in the interest of Sunni, Shia and Kurd alike, most Iraqi Kurds would prefer independence and hope that federalism ultimately gives way to partition. Many Sunnis and Shias view each other as rivals and some even as enemies. Unity is a worthy America goal, but it is anything but a safe assumption.

There is no question that Iraq needs the support of its neighbors. These neighbors can help the United States push the Iraqis together, or they can work to pull them apart. Right now, the neighbors are not doing enough to cut off the flow of money, arms, manpower and moral legitimacy to the Iraqi insurgency. There is little sign that they intend to do so.

Unfortunately, Washington has provided these neighboring governments little reason to work for an American victory. Quite the contrary, the U.S. administration continues to insist that a democratic Iraq will become a model for the region as a whole, not a vision likely to inspire the leadership in Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh.

Iraq's unity will be preserved only if all of Iraq's neighbors join with the United States in a concerted effort to hold Iraq together. To have any hope of enlisting states like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia in its effort to hold Iraq together, the Bush administration is going to have to put more emphasis upon themes of power sharing, territorial integrity, sovereignty and stability, and give less prominence to its aspirations to reform every other regime in the region.

If Iraqi government forces prove unable to relieve and begin replacing American troops in confronting the insurgency within their society in 2006, this will not be because they lack adequate training or sufficient equipment. Under any circumstances, Iraqi military and police will have more training and better equipment than the insurgents.

If Iraqization fails it will be because the newly formed Iraqi army and police do not find themselves operating under a government capable of inspiring them, paying them, and directing their efforts in a wise and coherent fashion. If the government that results from the just completed elections proves to be corrupt, abusive, incompetent and divided, then the Iraqi forces we are currently training could become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

The most crucial criteria for American success in Iraq, therefore, is not the pace at which Iraqi soldiers can be trained, but the degree to which democratization produces a broadly based and competent national government.

Outside View © 2005 United Press International

James Dobbins is a former Assistant Secretary of State and currently directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.