Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, is a candidate for president and is fighting a steep, uphill battle against the well-lubricated machines of Bill & Hillary Incorporated and Barack Obama. Every politician, whether odds-on favorite or long-shot, says he’s in it to win, and Biden is no exception, but his chances of getting the nomination are very low. Like most candidates of both parties, his only realistic objective is to become someone’s running mate.
For much of the recent past, Biden was known most famously as an accused plagiarist and one of the first public figures to receive a hair transplant. His quick and occasionally lame wit has also bathed him in unwanted limelight from time to time, as when he recently engendered much displeasure with the back-handed observation that Obama is “bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
His gaffes and checkered past notwithstanding, after more than 35 years in the Senate, Biden has developed into something of an eminence grise with attitude. For a politician with national ambitions, he is refreshingly gruff and opinionated, often wrong, it has been said, but never in doubt.
A vocal critic of the current strategy in Iraq, he has for some time been a champion of carving Iraq into three separate nations, or at least three mostly autonomous states within a larger Iraqi federation. Although from time to time others have suggested a similar solution to Iraq’s troubles (his partner in promulgating this plan has been the respected Leslie Gelb), Biden has been unique in his support of trifurcation. But now he has some company.
Last week, Edward Joseph of Johns Hopkins and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings, two esteemed academicians, announced their support for the devolution of Iraq. But as unpleasant as the current situation is, chopping Iraq into three pieces is liable to make things uglier.
Superficially, the idea seems benign enough. There are three major ethnic or religious groups, and they roughly inhabit three geographical areas. The Shia are the majority of Iraqis, and they are generally in the south. The Sunni, Saddam’s sect, are mostly in the middle of the country. And the Kurds, semi-autonomous even under Saddam’s rule, are in the north. The Kurds aren’t even Arabs, and Sunni and Shia are killing each other by the thousands. Why not separate them?
First, none of the three regions is ethnically pure. To dilute Kurdish control, Saddam moved thousands of Arabs to the north. Shia and Sunni both inhabit Baghdad in large numbers, and the southern part of the country also has plenty from both sects. While supporters of the plan cite a desire of many Arabs to leave Kurdish lands, this is not the same thing as a universal Iraqi agreement to leave homes inhabited for decades—in some cases many decades—just to solve our problem in Iraq. Indeed, given the multi-sect demography of most of central Iraq, it is difficult to envision how the regions can be made ethnically pure without enormous violence. So, does the United States really want to be in the business of ethnic cleansing?
Second, devolution is not the answer to reducing American involvement, expenses and casualties in Iraq. If anything, there will be a much greater need for troops, money and time, things that are supposed to be conserved by chopping Iraq into three pieces. So casualties will go way up, not down.
Finally, we Americans can do a lot of things in Iraq, but there’s one thing we can’t do with any effectiveness: tell the Iraqis what to do. No more influential a figure than Moqtada al-Sadr is dead-set against federation, and his forces, supported by Iran and permitted to grow through the ineptitude of people like Paul Bremer, will insure that it will be created only at enormous cost.
And if civil war in Iraq isn’t exciting enough, if getting out of Iraq is worth any cost, including creating an even bloodier mess, consider this: There are Kurds in half a dozen countries, most of them in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Restive and desirous of independence, Turkey’s Kurds have been a particular security problem. Making Iraqi Kurdistan even more independent than it is now is guaranteed to motivate Turkey to move forces into its own Kurdish lands to prevent the formation of a larger Kurdistan, and this will set the stage for a bloody regional war with many potential consequences, almost none of them good.
As in the Bible, the one with the most interest in carving up the baby is the one with the least interest in the baby.
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.