The Baker-Hamilton report will arrive soon. There is little reason to think that the document will contain worthwhile policy advice for fixing Iraq. After all, Messrs. Baker and Hamilton are the type of "realists" who believe in brokering with adversaries such as Syria and Iran. Such "realism" is a recipe for losing friends and emboldening enemies.
But there are "realists," and then there are realists. Swarthmore's James Kurth is the latter. Writing in a recent issue of the New Republic, Kurth proposes a novel plan: Abandon the idea of a single democratic Iraq and split the country into two states, a Kurdish north and a Shiite south. Kurth's proposal - call it "Biden with teeth" - is worth considering.
Kurth understands that a simple withdrawal from Iraq, or a partitioning that rewards Sunni insurgents, would be interpreted as a sign of American weakness - Somalia, writ large. So he suggests: "Before it leaves Iraq, then, the United States must inflict a dramatic and decisive defeat upon the Sunni insurgents - one that will demonstrate the unbearable cost and utter futility of the Islamist dream... . That defeat must be more than military; it must also be political: The United States should divide Iraq into two parts, leaving the Kurds in control of the north, the Shia in control of the south - and the Sunnis stateless in between."
The border would be drawn along the ethnic contours of Iraq, with Kirkuk (and probably Mosul) as part of Kurdistan and Baghdad as part of the much larger southern Shia state. Both territories have enough oil to be economically viable. After the partition, the United States would be free to pursue separate policies with each, using different carrots and sticks as needed.
And what would become of the Sunnis? Kurth is clear-eyed in recognizing that theirs would be a grim fate. They "would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today." This is a realism based not on a desire for stability and the status quo, but on an understanding of power and the opportunities inherent in instability.
There are rational objections to Kurth's plan. Turkey, for starters, would be unhappy with a Kurdish state on its border. Yet Turkey not only declined to participate in the coalition to remove Saddam, but also forbade the Fourth Infantry Division from crossing Turkish territory to establish a northern front in Iraq, a move that spared the lives of many Baathist troops and helped give the insurgency a running start. We owe the Turks no favors. To the contrary, it is worth reminding them that America's friendship is both valuable and conditional.
The other looming weakness in the two-state solution is Iran. A Shiite state would be immediately open to Iranian influence and might even become a vassal. Kurth believes that such an alliance would be short-lived: "Arabs are unlikely to accept long-term domination by Persians, whatever their religious commonality." He likens the situation to the way in which communist Yugoslavia became independent of the Soviet Union in the space of a few short years.
Yet it is unclear whether, in practice, ethnic schism would trump sectarian unity. America would have a great deal of economic leverage on the new nation, but there would remain a real possibility that the Shia state would become a permanent part of Iran's orbit, helping its bid for regional empire.
The biggest casualty of Kurth's plan would be the dream of bringing democracy to the Middle East. The Kurdish state would probably be a functioning democracy; the Shia state would start out as a democracy, but there would be no guarantees going forward.
Yet it may turn out that democracy is a tactical, not a strategic, goal. The broad strategic purpose of the Iraq project was to hobble our enemies in the region and prevent them from cooperating with terrorists. Even by the Bush Doctrine's own lights, democracy was just a means to achieve the real ends: liberalism. And while we have largely failed to establish a viable democracy in Iraq, we have completely failed at fostering liberalism. Nearly every indication is that the near- and medium-term consequences of democracy in the Middle East are a decrease in liberalism.
Whatever the Baker-Hamilton report may lack, it should spark a clarifying conversation that helps us focus on separating tactical and strategic objectives. Only when that is done can we plot the best way forward in Iraq. James Kurth's two-state proposal is good place to start the discussion.