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The Iraq War

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January 23, 2007

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Text as delivered; no prepared statement

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Former Chairman, members of the committee, permit me a moment of reflection.

I know well the bipartisan power of this committee. I worked here over 40 years ago for Senator Jacob Javits, and in 1966 this committee conducted hearings on Vietnam that really changed the course of the debate in the United States about that war. It illuminated the situation in Vietnam and our choices. Those hearings were a monument to bipartisanship and to democracy.

I am honored to be here to present the proposal—strategic alternative developed by the chairman and myself, now almost a year ago, and since we first put it forward it has been so misrepresented, maligned and attacked that my wife now calls it the “Biden Plan.”

(Laughter.)

The essence of the idea—the chairman just outlined it a moment ago—is that if there is to be a settlement of this war—and we may be beyond that point—it has to be a political settlement based on a power-sharing arrangement.

And there are two kinds of power-sharing arrangements: one can strive for a strong central government, or one can strive for a decentralized or federal system.

The administration has tried for over three years now to build the strong central government. It has not worked; it will not work, because there are not sufficient common interests and there’s almost total lack of trust. That government is inefficient and corrupt; most of the ministers—and I know you’ve all been there—don’t even leave the Green Zone to go to their ministries to run their departments.

So the alternative for the Iraqis is a decentralized system.

And I say “for the Iraqis,” because they themselves, as the chairman noted, have called what they have a federal system, and in their constitution, they put forward a federal structure and provide for provinces joining with other provinces to join regional governments.

This is not an invention of Chairman Biden and myself. It is in their constitution.

They also passed implementing legislation a few months ago to make this happen, though they deferred it.

Now, what would a government like this look like? Why is there opposition to the idea of actually getting it done; implementing the federal system? And, finally, how would you overcome that opposition and resistance?

The government would look like this: The central government would be based on the areas where there are genuine common interests among the different Iraqi parties. That is, foreign affairs, border defense, currency and, above all, oil and gas production and revenues. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But that’s where they share real interests.

As for the regions, whether they be three or four or five, whatever it may be, it’s up to—all this is up to the Iraqis to decide, would be responsible for legislation, administration and internal security. Very important, because they would defend themselves; they have that interest in taking care of their own people.

Now, 80 percent of the Iraqi people approved that constitution and that federal system. Eighty percent of the National Assembly backed the idea of moving forward on the federal system because it’s a way of letting the different communities run their own affairs and, at the same time, keeping the country together.

So, why the opposition?

The opposition comes principally from the Sunnis, and principally because they’ve been used to running that country for hundreds of years and they still view themselves as the natural rulers of the whole country; they don’t want to give it up. And they’re backed in that desire by their Sunni Arab neighbors, who like the idea of the Sunnis running Iraq, don’t like the idea of the Shi’ites running it, and don’t want to see Iraq broken up in any fashion whatsoever because it’s a bad precedent for them.

And they’re in turn backed by the Bush administration and by most of the Middle East experts in this country, who tend to follow the Sunni way of thinking on this.

There are Shi’ites opposed to this, too, and those Shi’ites are opposed to it because they think it’s now their turn to run all of Iraq, so they don’t want to see it federalized to weaken their power. And they’ve resisted it on those grounds.

The Kurds are all for it, and for almost 13 years they’ve been running their own regional government and very successfully.

Now, how do you overcome their resistance?

This is a big problem and it may not be doable, but here is what the chairman and I have put forward:

First and foremost, you try to make the Sunnis an offer they can’t refuse. You let them run their own region and they have to see that that’s preferable to their being a permanent minority in a government run by the Shi’ites and the Kurds.

This way they can run their own affairs, and it’s their last chance to do so.

Secondly, you’ve got to make it economically viable for the Sunnis to have their own region, and the only way you can do that is by changing the constitution so that it guarantees the Sunnis 20 percent, based on their proportion of the population, 20 percent of the oil revenues, present and future. Right now, they’re guaranteed nothing.

How do you convince the Shi’ites?

Basically, you’ve got to convince them that, if they try to run the whole country, they’re going to be faced with endless insurgencies themselves. They’ll have to pick up the civil war; they’ll never be able to enjoy the riches of that country of Iraq.

Those arguments, even though they make sense, aren’t enough, and we’ve got to go further.

The second element of the plan is how you use U.S. military withdrawals and redeployments, both within Iraq and within the region, to reinforce the kind of political settlement we would hope the Iraqis could reach.

The chairman and I have a little disagreement over what that military plan should look like, because I don’t see it in terms of any fixed timetables. I see it more as a process that we ask our military to arrange with the Iraqi military over the course of, say, two years, where we can make adjustments according to the situation.

Now, the withdrawal process opens up political doors for us that reinforce this decentralization or federal idea.

In the first place, it allows us to move toward an alliance with many of the Sunnis in the center of that country, with the Ba’athists, with the sheikhs and with the secular leaders of that society. Because once they see we’re not going to be there and remain their central enemy, they can band with us against the common enemy, the terrorists in their midst: the jihadis, the al Qaeda people.

And they are the common enemy for both of us. Those are the people who are destroying the homes of most of the Sunnis in the center of the country, destroying their lives. And once they see that we’re not there as a permanent military factor in the center of that country, we can begin to make that alliance with them.

The same goes with the Shi’as. Once they see that we’re in the process of leaving, we can develop common interests with them as well.

These are, in the last analysis, Iraqi Arab Shi’as, not Iranian Persian Shi’ites, and there’s an important historical difference there. And we can play on that in order to develop with the Shi’a that will help us advance a new government.

There’s also a difference in religious tradition, where the Iraqi Shi’as are much less willing to have their high clergy be involved directly in government than the Iranian Shi’ites.

So there’s area for us to work with, once they see we’re not going to be a permanent military presence.

The diplomacy is the final factor here, and, as we see the diplomacy, it is not something that can create a solution, nor should we try to create or impose one on the Iraqis. The diplomacy can’t solve the problem within Iraq, but it can reinforce any kind of arrangement that the Iraqis themselves are moving toward.

The Iranians or the Saudis are not going to impose a settlement on their allies within Iraq, but they’ll support something they themselves want to achieve.

Now finally, Mr. Chairman, members, I know it’s very fashionable to talk about the United States being in a weak and waning position in the Middle East and the Gulf, and that Iran is in the ascendancy. I think this is nonsense.

The United States is a great power. The Iranians are a puny power. Their importance in that area is temporary and based on the fact that the people of that area, the leaders, don’t see a coherent policy from the United States of America. When we have a coherent policy, those countries will come to us.

After the Vietnam War, and it ended in an awful way, President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had a coherent strategy, and the nations of Asia rallied to the United States because they did not want to see the United States weakened in their part of the world. The understood that they could not do what they wanted economically and protect their security without a strong United States and they rallied to us.

The same will happen in the Middle East and Gulf once the leaders and peoples of that area of the world believe we have a sensible strategy and have returned to a commonsense approach to the area.

I thank you very much for your attention.

Transcribed by Federal News Service

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