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Kerry, Iraq, and the New York Review of Books

Has John Kerry finally found a plan for Iraq in the writings of Peter Galbraith?

8:55 AM, Sep 30, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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BURIED IN THE SECOND SENTENCE of the seventh paragraph of a 2,119 word story in Sunday's New York Times was the first sign that John Kerry has a prescriptive plan for Iraq. It wasn't easy to find. Ostensibly an article on Kerry's decision-making process, "Kerry as the Boss: Always More Questions" was, in fact, more about the Democratic presidential candidate's indecision process. Read the piece, and one discovers that Kerry deliberated for four weeks on whether there should be an American flag in his campaign logo (the answer was yes); that Kerry is constantly on his cell phone, calling friends and advisers and family members and asking for advice; that Kerry stayed up until late at night on September 19, writing and rewriting and revising the speech he gave at New York University the next day. You learn that Kerry watches Charlie Rose, and that he reads the New York Review of Books.

Which is where Kerry's prescriptive plan comes in. You learn that Kerry likes what he reads in the New York Review's pages. "He attacks the material, he questions things, he tries to get it right," Richard Holbrooke, one of Kerry's senior foreign policy advisers, told the Times. For instance: once, "during a recent conversation about Iraq," Kerry interrupted Holbrooke and said, "'Have you read Peter Galbraith's article in the New York Review of Books? You've got to read that, it's very important.'"

Who is Peter Galbraith? He's a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, an expert on the Balkans, and an expert on the Kurds. Over the last year, he's had two pieces in the Review, both of them long essays in which he analyzed the problems faced by the occupation, proposed solutions to those problems, and criticized the Bush administration for not tackling such problems sooner. Based on the conversation with Holbrooke that was reported in the Times, it is safe to say that John Kerry finds Galbraith's analysis, proposals, and criticisms appealing. Which is telling. Because Peter Galbraith doesn't want to save Iraq, at least in its current form. He wants to break it up.

The first essay Galbraith wrote for the Review appeared in the May 13 issue under the title, "How to Get Out of Iraq." The title is misleading. Nowhere in the piece does Galbraith advocate unilateral withdrawal. Instead, he picks up on an idea first floated by the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. At its simplest (Galbraith disagrees with Gelb in a few places), the idea is this: Iraq should be split into three loosely federated republics. "In my view, Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state," Galbraith writes. "I feel strongly that it is impossible to preserve the unity of a democratic state where people in a geographically defined region almost unanimously do not want to be part of that state." His experiences in the Balkans have led him to this view.

In Galbraith's Iraq, the Kurds would declare their autonomy, the Shiites would have the Islamic democracy they seem to want, and the Sunnis would . . . well, it's not entirely clear what would happen to the Sunnis. "At the moment the Sunni Arabs have few identifiable leaders," he writes. It is an accurate conclusion, and a troubling one. What's troubling about it is that the leaders Sunni Arabs do have are mostly ex-Baathists and religious fanatics. The Sunni rejectionists oppose any political arrangement which they do not dominate. They are the primary force behind the current insurgency. And they are the chief obstacle to a unified Iraqi democracy.

Or maybe not. In Galbraith's Iraq, the Sunni insurgency comes across as a minor subplot, one masked by a larger, looming conflict between Kurds and Shiites. Forget about Sunni radicalism. In Galbraith's Iraq, the twin forces of Kurdish nationalism and Shiite majoritarianism are on a collision course:

Early in 2005, Iraq will likely see a clash between an elected Shiite-dominated central government trying to override the interim constitution in order to impose its will on the entire country, and a Kurdistan government insistent on preserving the de facto independent status Kurdistan has enjoyed for thirteen years.

The result, Galbraith says, will be civil war.

But what about the war taking place right now? Like Kerry, Galbraith isn't specific about ways in which the United States could pacify the Sunni Triangle. Like Kerry, he doesn't use the word "victory." Like Kerry, he views a prolonged American presence in Iraq as a sign of defeat. "There may be no good options for the United States in the Sunni Triangle," he writes. Interestingly, Galbraith says one possible solution is more democracy: