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Gelb: Federalism Is Most Promising Way to End Civil War in Iraq

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, CFR
October 16, 2007

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Leslie H. Gelb, former writer for The New York Times, and a senior Defense and State Department official before becoming president of CFR, says the plan to persuade Iraqis to accept a federal form of government is the best way to “maintain harmony” among Iraqi groups. The plan, which he has co-authored with Senator Joseph R. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was approved with seventy-five votes in favor in a recent nonbinding resolution. But Gelb says it is still not popular among many Arabs who, he says, are used to strong central government.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a nonbinding resolution authored by Senator Joseph R. Biden, calling for a federal system of government in Iraq. Of course you are a co-author of this resolution since you and he have written many articles on the need for just such a federal system in Iraq. Could you explain in a terse way what this proposal does that passed the Senate?

The idea is to encourage Iraqis to adhere to their own constitution and work on reconciliation amongst themselves by decentralizing power to regional governments—to create a federal system in effect—and that they have to do it themselves. We can push and cajole but it has to be their decision. And it reflects our beliefs and the beliefs of seventy-five senators that this is the only promising way of bringing about political reconciliation among the different Iraqi groups.

Right now in Iraq we know the situation is that the Kurds in the north are more or less autonomous; the Shiites in the south are fighting among themselves; and the situation of the Sunnis in the center is a bit more unclear because we’ve got al-Qaeda mixed in with Sunni tribes. But is there a de facto federalism in existence now? Or do we still have a long way to go?

There is a de facto diffusion of power in the country because you have a civil war and because you have different groups in control of different parts of the country, but that’s as a result of war and ethnic cleansing and movement of populations, and not the result of a political agreement on how to construct a government that will maintain harmony among the different Iraqi groups.

The reaction of the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was what?

The reaction of Maliki and some others to the passage of the Senate resolution was negative, because I think they were told by the U.S. embassy that this was something that the United States was going to force down their throats.

Even though the resolution says that it’s up to the Iraqis to do it?

The resolution absolutely says that, but I think that our embassy misled them.

The U.S. embassy was harsh in its response?

It was, and this bewildered me. It certainly bewildered Senator Biden, because when Ambassador Ryan Crocker appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he testified in favor of federalism. In his private conversations with senators, he also supported the idea. So it is kind of a mystery why he blasted the resolution from Baghdad. Maybe he hadn’t read it.

What is the status now of this resolution? Does it have to go to the House?

The House can take it up, and we hope that they will. More importantly, we are looking to the Iraqis to take up the idea. Senator Biden and others have heard from the Iraqis something to the effect that they would like to call a conference among themselves and begin looking at the idea. Even though the word “federalism” is in their constitution, it is pretty clear when you talk to Iraqis that they don’t fully appreciate their own brilliance putting the word in the constitution. That is because federalism is a relatively foreign concept in all Arab countries because it calls for the decentralization of power. Arab states are used to focusing power in a strong central government. They have to sort out different things. One is that federalism doesn’t mean chaos, that it is sensible when there are profound differences among groups in the society. Secondly, they have to focus on, what I believe to be the fact, that federalism is the only way to keep the country united. Federalism does not mean partition.

In your coauthored article with Senator Biden in 2006, you talk about Bosnia as an example of successful federalism. In former Yugoslavia, didn’t each of the different regions have its own army?

They did up until a year ago. Now they have begun a process of unifying those armies. But what you said was correct. The Dayton Accords allows each of the groups to maintain its own armies. It is for good reason. They only had confidence that they could protect themselves with their own forces.

Would your federalism do the same?

Yes.

In other words, the whole idea of training this Iraqi Army, which the United States is doing right now, would be changed?

It would be modified. There would still be an Iraqi armed force, I would hope, to deal with the borders of Iraq, and perhaps with Baghdad and other major cities. But, yes, each regional government would be allowed to maintain its own security.

In fact, isn’t that what is happening now? The Shiites control the forces in the south and the Kurds in the north?

Yes. It isn’t quite that clean, but that is generally what’s happening. In the south, for example, there isn’t just one Shiite militia group, there are two or three.

That would have to be worked out somehow.

That’s right. It may be worked out in that there not being one Shiite regional government in the south, maybe there would be two.

What about oil? How would you handle the oil?

How I would handle oil, and how I would hope that the Iraqis would, would be to continue to treat it, as it states in the constitution, that the oil and gas are the wealth and possession of all the Iraqi people. The production of oil and gas and the revenues from them would go to the central government and then would be dispensed, almost automatically, to the regional governments based on their proportion of the population.

There has been a controversial deal that was struck between the Kurdish regional government and Hunt Oil for exploration. Wouldn’t that be disallowed?

Yes. Under this, the regional governments would not be allowed to make these types of deals; they would have to be made through the central government. This division, keeping oil and gas in the central government, would be a tremendous unifying factor. Because, if you let each of the regional governments do whatever it wanted, there would really be chaos and it would lead to the continuation of the civil war.

How do you get an area, like the Kurdish area, to agree to this?

You can get them to agree by saying that any separate agreements would be unlawful. The government in Baghdad has declared the Kurdish agreement with the Hunt Oil Company to be illegal, and I think that any fair reading of the constitution would support that. Secondly, you can make the argument that if each group tries to hog its own oil rights, they are bound to be challenged, on the ground, with guerrilla and terrorist actions to blow up those oil wells and pipelines. They never would be able to exploit that which would make them wealthy; their oil riches. They would always be battling internally just to pump the oil and deliver it.

In the Senate vote [on the nonbinding resolution], there were seventy-five votes in favor?

Yes, seventy-five. It is the only Iraqi policy vote that has ever prevailed in the Senate or the House other than those that support troops.

What does this plan do for the withdrawal of American troops?

The resolution didn’t speak to the matter of American troops. Senator Biden doesn’t feel exactly the same about this as I do. He has talked about some sort of timetable for the withdrawal of the troops; he has changed the dates on that. I think they are a little bit longer than they used to be. I, myself, am not in favor of the timetable, but I am in favor of a withdrawal plan with flexible targets. I would begin that withdrawal process as soon as possible to reinforce the sense of urgency on the Iraqis to make this political settlement. I think that as long as they see we are going to stay there in force at the levels President Bush has said that he wants to maintain, they don’t have much incentive to make these political deals.

Is your timetable somewhat similar to General David Petraeus’ timetable?

I don’t know. My timetable, if I could play king, would be to sit down with the U.S. military and the Iraqis and work it out together. I would be pushing to have more than half of the troops out, at least, in two years.

I notice in Iraq that there have been talks between Shiite-Sunni political groups. Are they trying to strengthen the central government or discuss a federal government?

I don’t know. You know the instinct, as I said, among most Iraqis, not including the Kurds, is for a strong central government; that is what they are used to. The problem is: Who is going to run it? The Shiites believe that it is their turn. They are 60 percent of the population. But the Sunnis know the Kurds obviously would not accept that.

When the British took over Iraq from the Ottoman Turks after World War I, they had of course a lot of questions about what to do about Iraq. They finally opted, after a small civil war of their own, to put a king in to unify the country.

It wasn’t a little civil war, it was a big one.

Did the British consider a federal system?

They considered running the country more or less how the Ottomans had, with a strong central government but with the country divided, in effect, into three provinces: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni, each having a different governor.

Was the country more or less loosely federated until Saddam Hussein took over?

I wouldn’t call it loosely federated, they didn’t have as nearly a strong central government as they did under Saddam, because he ruled by brutality and force.

Why has there been so much opposition here, in the Middle East, and the Gulf to this idea?

After I first wrote about this, four years ago on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and several times in the Wall Street Journal, I was never more criticized for any idea that I have advanced in my life. I think among the Arabs, there has been a very strong negative reaction because they really thought that this was a plan to break up Iraq, break it into three parts, to destroy an Arab country. They even thought that it was an Israeli plot. They didn’t focus on the fact that the country was breaking up as a result of the civil war, that there was ethnic cleansing going on, that there were millions of people leaving the country, and perhaps that the only way to keep Iraq whole and united would be through a federal system. They hadn’t had that kind of experience; it was totally foreign to Arab history. I think that they equated this plan with partition, and I must say that if I were sitting in their shoes I would have as well. In fact most of the people who are supporting what Joe Biden and I have advocated are calling it “partition”: soft partition, hard partition, but still partition. They always referred to it as partition.

Your original article, of course, was called “The Three-State Solution.” Didn’t that encourage that thought?

We have fifty states in our federal system, and we call them states. It is a term of art that didn’t work quite well, obviously, in the Arab world. Why didn’t the Bush people like it? They didn’t like it because it wasn’t their idea. Their idea was to build up a strong central government in Baghdad, that’s what the Arab experts inside the administration were telling them, and that is what they themselves believed, in part because they didn’t know a thing about Iraq. They didn’t understand the rivalries, the hatreds, and conflicts of that country, and they thought that they could build a strong central government first by elections and then by them putting pressure on the different parties. It has not worked for four years and it still doesn’t work.

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