Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.
But no. Believe it or not, that sentence serves as the introduction to the Times’s attempt to claim that the current mess in Iraq is Biden’s vindication–or at least the vindication of his proposal in 2006 to divide Iraq into three pieces. The country currently looks headed that way, goes the logic, and so perhaps Biden was right after all.
Wrong. Let’s first dispense with the faulty logic employed by the Times. Just because Biden suggested something that is now happening does not mean the United States should have facilitated that outcome. There are various reasons for this, one of which Christian Caryl reported a few days ago:
For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it’s hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.
It’s worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country’s polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world’s last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.
Feeding Iraq’s sectarianism meant obliterating in some cases its ethnic minority communities. That’s what is happening now, and I don’t think Biden or his staff wishes they could take credit for it.
Now, there’s an important distinction Biden makes: he insists he didn’t want three separate countries–a true partition–but instead three semi-autonomous territories with a central government. Yet a look at Iraq today tells you all you need to know about how well the center could hold under such a federal system. What that division would do is accelerate the disintegration.
Once you devolve power from the center and encourage sectarian division, that division will only concretize leaving the federal center without enough enforcement power. A federal system can thrive in certain conditions–Biden himself is currently vice president of a federal republic–but one important condition is a commitment to a certain level of nationalism. Iraq’s borders never possessed the legitimacy such a state would need. The legitimacy, instead, was held by sectarian loyalties.
There’s also more than a bit of irony in the supposed “vindication” of Biden’s old idea. The tone of the story is that if only we had listened to Biden, things might have been different. But the story opens up by stating, explicitly, that we have been listening to Biden all along. Iraq has been his portfolio. The truth is that neither of Biden’s ideas about how to solve the Iraq puzzle were good ones, and the current situation there is demonstrating the failure of both–the failure of one leading to the failure of the other.
More than anything else, Iraq’s dissolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama/Biden team was elected on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Iraq war as soon as the president could make the retreat happen. When that took place, which was before it was strategically sensible, the fragile calm achieved but still being secured when Obama came into office was lost. The administration’s overall policy has been disastrous, and that did not happen because no one took Joe Biden’s advice.