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Biden gets real on Iraq

Reorganizing Iraq along ethnic and religious lines would be the best hope for that country's stability.

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Realism in foreign policy traditionally has been associated with Republicans. But in dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, it is a key Democrat who is proposing a realistic approach. The Bush administration and other Republicans, by contrast, still cling to the idealistic notion of achieving a functioning nation made up of ethno-religious groups who despise one another.

Recently, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), along with Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, proposed reorganizing Iraq along ethnic-religious lines. Three autonomous regions corresponding to the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites would run their own affairs, while the national government would be responsible for border defense, foreign affairs, and oil revenues. Baghdad, with its mixed population, would be a federal zone.

The Biden/Gelb proposal reflects the reality that, in certain circumstances, centralized nations composed of competing ethnic or religious groups are unworkable. Democratic institutions fail because each group can effectively veto legislation. The citizenry tends to think in terms of group rights instead of individual rights. Rather than fostering the development of civil liberties, any movement toward democracy results in people focusing on their new rights as members of a particular sect. Each major political party advances the agenda of an ethnic or religious group and only secondarily, if at all, takes sensible economic or good-government principles into account. No political party addresses the needs of the country as a whole.

In addition to Iraq now, this was the situation in Yugoslavia after its creation in 1918. The government was unable to function because agreement on vital national issues could not be reached. Continuous stalemate finally was broken by a royal dictatorship that came to power in 1929. After World War II, Marshal Tito, through his charismatic personality and iron fist, was able to quell sectarian movements, but after he died and communism waned, Yugoslavia collapsed amid civil war.


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