What Is Mowaffaq al-Rubaie Talking About?
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, has an op-ed in The Washington Post decrying a partition of Iraq along ethno-sectarian lines. That’s to be expected: partition is vastly more popular among Americans than among Iraqis, and al-Rubiae, in any event, is a member of what’s shaping up to be a new, permanent security architecture in Baghdad. (He’s served as "national security adviser," whatever that means, since 2004, despite two national elections and three changes of leadership.) Partition would weaken Baghdad’s power, thereby goring al-Rubaie’s ox. So far, so sensible. More notable is that al-Rubaie’s argument leads him to a place he doesn’t go explicitly: that the current political structure in Iraq can’t hold.
So here’s al-Rubaie’s big complaint:
The current political framework is based on a pluralistic democratic vision that, while admirable, is entirely unsuited to resolving this three-way divide. [ie, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds.] It ignores underlying issues and expects that a consensus will emerge simply by enacting a liberal constitutional legal order.
Sure thing, widely noted, not particularly controversial. Furthermore, al-Rubaie doesn’t make an explicit argument about this, but he rejects partition, saying its something Iraq must “avoid” and putting it on the same plane as “civil strife.” So what needs to happen?
Resolution can be achieved only through a system that incorporates regional federalism, with clear, mutually acceptable distributions of power between the regions and the central government.[snip]
The shape of a reconstructed, federal Iraq could vary, but it should permit the assignment of nearly all domestic powers to the regions, to be funded out of a percentage of oil revenue distributed on the basis of population. The federal government should be responsible only for essential central functions such as foreign policy (including interregional affairs), defense, fiscal and monetary policy, and banking. Regional parliaments and executives would govern their areas. A federal parliament with a new upper house could manage governance at the national level. A regional political structure would allow for the development of religious, cultural and educational policies more suited to areas’ populations than a central government could create. A regional framework for economic policy would also fit better with traditional trade patterns and markets.
The trouble here is that Iraq isn’t the U.S. or, say, Canada. It doesn’t have a tradition of decentralization or federalism. When I was in Mosul in March, I sat in with a Provincial Reconstruction Team from the U.S. as it tried to make sense of how much leeway the provincial council had over its own budget. The not-particularly-stable answer, after a ton of research and debate: some, but not much. The province basically bids on service proposals put forward by the Baghdad ministries—and, if memory serves (and my understanding was accurate in the first place), at least half of the council’s budget comes from Baghdad anyway. In other words, federalism isn’t an organic concept here.
And that’s exactly why discussions about federalism vs. partition tend to bog down in Baghdad. To non-Kurdish Iraqis, the term "federalism" either means "partition" directly, or serves as a stalking horse for it. For Kurdish Iraqis, the same goes—only they like that. The more robust a proposal for federalism—al-Rubaie proposes five regions, for instance—the hotter the opposition to it gets. Alternatively, sometimes discussions about federalism (which is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, it should be noted) get so heated that its chastened (Arab) advocates articulate a vision of federalism not significantly distinct from the status quo.
Barring some massive political or sectarian sea change, the sectarian counterweights to al-Rubaie’s proposal are so numerous as to be probably insurmountable. And that just leaves us where we already are: a center that doesn’t hold, "entirely unsuited" to the interests and desires of Iraq’s competing sectarian groups. I’ve heard people say that the Awakening Councils consist of Sunnis more sympatico with federalism. And, you know, maybe. But I’ve only heard that said by military officials or others invested in the idea that a solution to one problem (i.e., the fight against al-Qaeda) is a solution to all problems (i.e., sectarian acrimony.)