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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:

As for the Sunni Triangle, one hope is for elections to produce a set of leaders who can restore order and end the insurrection. Presumably this is an outcome the Sunni rebels do not want to see happen; they will use violence to prevent a meaningful election in large parts of the Sunni Triangle. In these circumstances, the United States may face the choice of turning power over to weak leaders and living with the resulting chaos, or continuing to try to pacify the Sunni Triangle, which may generate ever more support for the insurrection.

And yet, Galbraith continues, one advantage of his plan is that, if democracy fails in the Sunni region, "the three-state approach could limit U.S. military engagement to a finite area."

Galbraith touches on all these points in his second article for the Review, which appeared in the September 23 issue under the title, "Iraq: The Bungled Transition." In this essay, Galbraith is more reportorial than prescriptive. He profiles Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, details how the United States let the Transitional Administrative Law die on the vine, and reiterates the need to divide the country into three. "If this conception had been understood earlier," he writes, "America's problems in Iraq could have been narrowed to the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad."

What Galbraith and Kerry share is a sense that the American project in Iraq is edging toward defeat and bordering on catastrophe. "The United States faces a near-impossible dilemma in Iraq," Galbraith writes. Withdrawal would mean "leaving behind a weak government unable to cope with the chaos that is the breeding ground of terrorism." Long-term deployment, on the other hand, "undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government it wants to support, while U.S. military action produces more recruits for its enemies." So far, Kerry hasn't articulated a strategy that squares this circle, providing security while allowing U.S. forces to leave. Galbraith provides Kerry with such a strategy. And it is an exit strategy, not a victory strategy: "The advantage of a strategy aimed at loose federation is that it can create powerful regions and thereby a possible escape from our dilemma. The current strategy, if it can be called that, offers no way out." You can see why John Kerry would be excited.

What separates Kerry and Galbraith? Two things. First, Galbraith doesn't stress the need to bring in foreign troops like Kerry does. The way Kerry sees it, once he's president, the French and Germans will assume the burden in Iraq, thus allowing a rapid, substantial reduction of U.S. forces. In Galbraith's Iraq, that wouldn't be necessary. Instead, the United States would leave the Kurds and Shiites to themselves, thus freeing up men and materiel for the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad.

Second, if you listen to Kerry on the stump these days, it's clear he now believes the war in Iraq accomplished little, if anything. The war was "the wrong war in the wrong place and the wrong time." On the stump, Kerry stresses intervention's downside: the monetary cost, the human cost, the opportunity cost. He does not talk about the fact that Saddam Hussein is in prison and his sociopath sons are dead.

Galbraith does. For him, Saddam Hussein's removal was a universal good. What's gone right? "Iraq is free from Saddam Hussein and the Baath party," he writes in "How to Get Out of Iraq." "Along with Cambodia's Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein's regime was one of the two most cruel and inhumane regimes in the second half of the twentieth century." And he goes on: "The peoples of Iraq are much better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein." Furthermore, Galbraith writes, the problems the new Iraq faces, though exacerbated by U.S. mismanagement, are not the products of U.S. mismanagement: "Rather, they are inherent in an artificial state held for eighty years primarily by brute force. American liberation--and liberation it was--ended the brute force."

Maybe someone should ask Kerry if he agrees.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.