Vice President Joe Biden told Newsmax on Tuesday that splitting Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions with a central government in Bagdad “would have worked” had it been implemented when he first voiced the idea nearly a decade ago.
But when told of Biden’s remarks to me later that day, two respected former officials in the U.S. intelligence community insisted that the concept of an Iraqi “confederation” divided into three separate regions would work today.
Given the current fractious state of Iraq, Biden’s vision of Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni states is more relevant now than it was when he first advocated it in 2006, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra told me.
When the vice president spoke to reporters in the East Room of the White House following the joint news conference by President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, I asked him whether he still believed the “idea of partitioning Iraq was a good idea.”
“Yes,” Biden told me, “and it would have worked if had it been done from the beginning [in 2006, when he wrote of the three-region concept in an essay in the New York Times, along with Leslie H. Gelb, past president of the Council on Foreign Relations]."
He added, “I never used the word partition — ever. I said Iraq needs to be a ‘loosely confederated federation.’ A ‘loosely federated confederation.' Check it out.”
Writing with Gelb in the Times on May 1, 2006, Biden called for maintaining “a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group … room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”
Acknowledging that the Sunnis “have to be given money to make their oil-poor region viable,” Biden and Gelb called for amending the Constitution to “guarantee Sunni areas 20 percent [approximately their proportion of the population] of all revenues.”
Hayden and Hoekstra think this idea makes sense now. “I would not want to have the partitioning of a country as a legacy of its statecraft,” Hayden told me hours after I spoke to Biden, “However, the unity of Iraq has disintegrated and now the same thing is happening to Syria. They cannot unite today, so it is better today that they be left to have smaller semi-autonomous states, where ethnic and religious groups can manage their own affairs.”
Put another way, the former CIA director said, “Iraq and Syria are no longer the countries they were and they aren’t coming back. That’s reality now.”
Writing in Newsmax on the same day I spoke to Biden, Hoekstra concluded “It is almost impossible for Iraq, Syria and Libya to ever again exist as they have since after World War I. The French, British and Italians created the three countries with arbitrary, unnatural boundaries that split ethnic groups and attempted to impose a framework of western governance.
As an alternative, the former lawmaker suggested that “perhaps Iraq and Syria could implement an overarching civilian directorate with rotating leadership among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It would monitor and distribute oil revenues to three super-autonomous regional executives with their own militaries.”
But there were other opinions. Responding to Biden’s remarks Tuesday, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me: “I have not heard Vice President Biden or the White House specify how such a proposal could be enacted. Such a division, whether it is a confederation or a partition, would be difficult during the armed conflict now underway. Iraq is not Switzerland, a longtime peaceful confederation.
“There are powerful, outside influences in the Middle East that make it difficult for Sunnis and Shiites to live together in harmony. Additionally, an autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq could have a problematic regional impact given the expressed Kurdish interest in an independent country encompassing territory in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.”
“We should be careful in making such suggestions,” Smith warned, “which may sound good on paper, but could very possibly stir ethnic and religious animosities in the real world and worsen an already destabilized area.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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