Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Realist Prism: As Mideast Unravels, Time to Reconsider “Soft Partitions.” By Nikolas Gvosdev.

The Realist Prism: As Mideast Unravels, Time to Reconsider “Soft Partitions.” By Nikolas Gvosdev. World Politics Review, January 10, 2014. Also here.


Depressing headlines from the Middle East have thrown cold water on any lingering optimism that U.S. policy objectives in the region were on track. In Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi have been lost, at least for now, to al-Qaida-linked insurgents. The Syrian conflict has apparently transformed into a multi-sided war, increasing the likelihood that Bashar al-Assad’s regime will survive. And progress remains elusive in Afghanistan as the countdown to withdrawal continues. Not long ago there was reason for hope in all these countries. The surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to have worked, and the Arab Spring, it was hoped, would not simply topple authoritarian regimes but lay the groundwork for the emergence of secular democracies throughout the region.
I concur with my colleague Steven Metz’s observation earlier this week that the Middle East is not President Barack Obama’s to “lose.” Certainly, we should not accept any narrative that denies agency to Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan leaders and absolves them of responsibility for the errors, mistakes and blunders of the past several years. At the same time, however, American policymakers’ own preferences and beliefs shaped the policies Washington pursued.
A case in point is Vice President Joe Biden’s unheeded endorsement, as a senator in 2006, of a “soft partition” for Iraq. Such a move might have laid the basis for a more stable country over the long term, and might have then provided a more workable path forward for dealing with the current unravelings in both Syria and Afghanistan. At the time, Biden’s approach clashed with the majority view, in both Democratic and Republican circles, that the way forward was to continue to push for a strong central government empowered by an electoral system defined by “one person, one vote.”
It is unfortunate that the bitterly learned lessons of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were set aside because their conclusions were at odds with Americans’ preferred outcomes for the Middle East, particularly after a decade of sacrifice and loss. Had there been a greater willingness to grapple with an honest after-action report of what happened in the former Yugoslavia—and how U.S. and allied policy preferences and choices contributed to those outcomes—some of the setbacks we are now experiencing could have been avoided.
What were some of the lessons that were ignored?
The first and most important one is that you cannot have “normal” politics in a country as long as the dominant political identities are ethno-sectarian. If the prime motivator for most voters is a shared ethnic affiliation, rather than social, political and economic positions, then political life will be dominated by ethnic considerations and by intergroup polarization. In Bosnia’s elections, for instance, voters have for the most part cast ballots for parties defined by their affiliation with fellow Serbs, Muslims or Croats; in the definitive elections before the outbreak of war in the early 1990s, voters tended to cast their ballots for politicians who shared their identity rather than their political outlook. Before the war—and after the end of fighting in 1995—this voting pattern produced unstable coalitions where a great deal of effort was expended to divide up government offices and positions on an ethnically proportional basis.
A second, related lesson is that when democracy is defined in majoritarian terms and politics are run on ethnic lines, then the ethnic and religious minorities will consistently be outvoted. This will either produce the impetus for separatism—reinforcing the belief that “the system” has no place for minorities—or, depending on the demographics, an effort to forge an “alliance of the minorities” to counterbalance or even dominate the titular majority. Either way, it also tends to produce politics defined by a zero-sum mentality. The inexorable logic of the Kosovo conflict demonstrates this. Once Kosovo’s autonomous status had been revoked by Slobodan Milosevic in 1989, the Kosovar Albanians who were a majority in the province found themselves in an ostensibly centralized republic in which they would be the perpetual minority. Having fought to separate, however, the government in Pristina must now cope with the unwillingness of the Serb-majority areas of Northern Kosovo to, in turn, accept perpetual minority status in a Kosovo independent of Serbia.
The third lesson is that under such conditions it can be very difficult to generate neutral state institutions that inspire trust and confidence. Bosnia functions, in essence, on life support provided by the European Union, which may, in conditions of economic austerity, be scaled back. Macedonia, which itself experienced an abortive civil war more than a decade ago between its Slav-majority and Albanian-minority populations, must still grapple with this problem.
The U.S. initially wanted to hold Yugoslavia together, as U.S. policymakers were uncomfortable with accommodating the nationalism that was an important reason for Yugoslavia’s demise as a multiethnic federation. But Washington came to believe that successor states could be neatly devised from the wreckage. After strongly opposing a “soft partition” plan for Bosnia in 1992, the U.S. brokered a settlement—devised by Richard Holbrooke at Dayton three years later, after thousands of lives had been lost—that codified an internal partition of Bosnia between a Serb republic and a federation composed of Muslim and Croat units. Washington turned a blind eye to population exchanges, some forced, some consensual, that changed the demographics within Bosnia and Croatia; accepted that borders could be changed by shifting position on Kosovo to support complete independence; and helped to broker power-sharing agreements in Macedonia. These arrangements, imperfect as they are, have at least endured peacefully.
Today, the U.S. continues to maintain there are Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan identities that transcend and trump religious, sectarian, tribal and linguistic affiliations in those countries. The prevailing approach is that national elections, as already held in Iraq and Afghanistan, should produce governments perceived as legitimate by all sectors of the population. But as long as democratic majoritarianism is understood locally either as the dominance of the majority ethnic group or an opportunity to create an alliance of minorities, then stability is not possible through voting. Events in Iraq this past week are the latest sign of this reality.
Biden’s proposal on Iraq involved “decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group . . . room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” That plan, itself based on lessons learned from the Bosnia example, might gain new momentum as a way to hold an increasingly fragmented Iraq together. It might also serve as the basis for a political settlement in Syria and a blueprint for holding Afghanistan together as Western forces depart and the aid spigot that has funded the central government is turned off.
If Washington is serious about its postponed pivot to the Pacific, it can no longer devote as much time and attention to the Middle East. It might be time for Biden to make the case for soft partition one last time. As he noted seven years ago, “We’re going to get there either by our action or by our inaction; what we need to do is to manage this.”