Decentralized Federalism in Iraq:

Both liberal democratic Senator Joe Biden and the conservative National Review have recently published articles arguing that decentralized federalism is the way forward in Iraq, and the best policy for addressing that country's serious ethnic and religious conflicts. Hopefully, a broad consensus will emerge on this point in the United States and (more importantly) in Iraq itself.

I published a piece making a similar argument in a supplement to the Iraqi paper Al Sabah last year. The English language version is available here.

UPDATE: Many people, both in the US and in Iraq, confuse decentralized federalism with partition of the country into three separate states (Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish). In reality, federalism is an ALTERNATIVE to partition, not a synonym for it. Like partition, it has the advantage of enabling each of the three groups to avoid total domination by any of the others. Unlike partition, it avoids breaking up Iraq into three relatively weak nations that would be easy pickings for Iraq's rapacious neighbors. The other alternatives to partition are probably dictatorship or civil war. Despite the very serious attendant risks, I don't think that partition should be categorically ruled out for all time. But, at the very least, we and the Iraqis should try federalism first.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Iraqi Federalism II - Answering Three Common Objections:
  2. Decentralized Federalism in Iraq:
I am, by far, no historian or political scientist so I might be wrong about this, but it seems to me that many or most of our democratizing efforts have lead to and most of the world's democracies are parlimentary systems rather than something resembling the sort of democracy we have in the US (i.e. a federation of largely autonomous states (a relative idea, to be sure)). Is there a good reason for this?
5.9.2006 3:02pm
Ilya Somin:
The question of parliamentary vs. presidential government is separable from the question of centralization vs. decentralization. Many parliamentary democracies (e.g. - Canada, Belgium, Switzerland) are significantly MORE decentralized than the US is.

While parliamentary systems are more common than presidential ones, the latter predominate in Latin America and also in several newly democratized eastern European nations. Ironically, the only presidential system in Western Europe is that of France (which, however, is much more centralized than the US).
5.9.2006 3:06pm
If Iraq would be in "equilibrium" I would completly agree with the article, however, I don't think that Iraqi oil field distribution, is condusive to the overall premise of fedarlism that Iraq needs. The potential Sunni fedaral center would go bankrupt unless supported by the central government's allocation of at least some oil resources.

Thus if I understand the situation correctly, there will be two self-sufficent and perfectly autonomous regions - Sumer and Kurdistan, but the Anbar province and its ilk would still remain the source of unrest - heh it might just secede to Syria if left on its own.

Plus advocating the regional confederacy would incorage the Iranian meddling in the Shia affairs and Turkish and Iranian Kurds moving toward organizing "Greater Kurdistan" - in short a whole bunch of problems
5.9.2006 3:12pm
Dylanfa (mail) (www):
The potential Sunni federal center would go bankrupt unless supported by the central government's allocation of at least some oil resources.

I'm pretty sure that's a feature, not a bug.
5.9.2006 3:17pm
Ilya Somin:
The potential Sunni federal center would go bankrupt unless supported by the central government's allocation of at least some oil resources.

Actually, all three proposals (Biden's, NR's, and mine) include provisions to address this either through guaranteeing the Sunnis a share of the government's oil revenue (Biden), through a privatization model that would give all Iraqis individual ownership rights over oil (NR), or through a combination of the two (me).
5.9.2006 3:21pm
First poster Billb may not be correct. The US' most obvious democratizing effort, West Germany, was specifically set up as a decentralized federal system with a bicameral legislature like the US.
5.9.2006 3:42pm
Out of the three proposals - I would most certainly chose the one that you are advocating. I believe it is unrealistic to expect the majority government composed of mostly Shi'a and Kurds to pay anything more than lip service to engaging in privatization scheme that would enable the Sunnis to have any access to oil that they would not otherwise have. Thus, supplementing the privatization with effective central government enforcement guarantee - at least ameliorates some of the problems.

However, when the economic and political resources are concetrated in the hands of a single ethnic/religous group, I just don't see the benefits they would attain from implementing the plan that you are proposing.
5.9.2006 3:51pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
"Both liberal democratic Senator Joe Biden and the conservative National Review have recently published articles arguing that decentralized federalism is the way forward in Iraq..."

Great... can we try it here at home? (Someone had to say it...)
5.9.2006 3:52pm
Ilya has likely already seen this, but I'll post it anyway. Anthony Cordesman has a rebuttal to idea of breaking up Iraq in today's NYTimes (I'm not sure if it is bhind firewall or not):

Three Iraqs Would Be One Big Problem
Published: May 9, 2006

SOME pundits and politicians have been floating the idea that America consider dividing Iraq into three ethno-religious entities, saying this would not only stem the insurgency but also allow our troops an earlier exit. They are wrong: fracturing the country would not serve either Iraqi or United States interests, and would make life for average Iraqis even worse.


IMHO, Cordesman, with whom I normally disagree, has the far better of the argument.
5.9.2006 4:07pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
The "way forward" in Iraq would be completing the electric grid and production system, so that electricity was available, 24/7, and something more than 50% of the population could be productively employed.

Playing with constitutional federalism as if it is a potential solution to a primary problem, is misguided in so many respects, on so many levels that it is difficult to even outline the problems. The Kurds are the ones, who want a separate State, and not only the Iraqis, Sunni and Shia both, oppose them in this opposition; there is also the small matter of fierce Turkish and Iranian opposition.

Then, there is the matter of physical geography. It has become a commonplace to say something knowing about how the British arbitrarily divided the Middle East map. But, it wasn't that arbitrary; the British made an accurate geographical map, and they could read it, even if they did not necessarily know the complexities of ethnic politics. There are no physical barriers around which to form defensible frontiers; the Tigris and Euphrates form a naturally unified area.

The problems of Iraq are the problems of poor infrastructure and weak institutions. Ignoring the infrastructure and further weakening the institutions is not going to make things better.
5.9.2006 4:44pm
I.I (www):
Decentralized federalism- what a great idea! Maybe we should try it here in the USA.

I'm reminded of the comedian (Leno?) who said something along the lines of "The Iraqis need a constitution? Let's just give them ours, we're not using it any more."
5.9.2006 5:16pm
David Maquera (mail) (www):
I would go further than a decentralized federation. I think the Kurds should be allowed to realize their dreams for self-determination and secede to form Kurdistan. I also think the Shias and Sunnis should go their separate ways. While the fear is that a large neighbor state (aka Iran) might attempt to annex a shattered Iraq, I think with the US providing military support and assistance to a newly established Kurdistan and the Gulf States providing military and financial assistance to the Iraqi Shias (who are of different ethnic origin than the Iranian Shias), Iran might find itself sucked into an unanticipated quagmire.
5.9.2006 7:05pm
Fooburger the Foo (mail) (www):
The Federalist Papers argue best against division. There's no point I can reasonably make that isn't reasonably, if redundantly, stated therein.
The arguments of the late 18th century are still considerably applicable today.
5.9.2006 9:07pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
One problem with a total dissolution is Baghdad. It is apparently highly mixed between Sunnis and Shiites. And if it is going to stay, then most of the rest should too.
5.10.2006 1:25am
Charlie (mail):

Cordesman covers most of this ground, but I am interested in hearing your respones:

1) Oil Revenues. The real kicker here is how to make sure that the Sunni regional government gets it fair share. Biden says to amend the Constitution. I am skeptical that this will a) convince the Sunnis they will actually get the money and b) convince the Kurds and Shia that they should give it up. You suggest taxing the income on shares in a national oil trust, at the regional level, based on citizenship. This may be helpful, in so far as it might require the state to develop more effective ways of penetrating down to collect tax revenues, or it might be done at the national level - i.e., the regional governments sit down, argue about their respective populations, come to some agreement about the numbers, and then apply the tax before the income goes downstream to the receipt holder. This seems much more likely to me, but returns us to the problem: how to ensure the Sunnis get their money? A strong central government OR US participation in allocation.

2) The Mixed Areas: Biden/Gelb are, quite frankly, totally dishonest about how these areas would be handled (thinking Baghdad, Kirkuk, and to lesser extent Mosul). They suggest international police presence and multisectarian policing. As for international police presence, where does it come from? They reference the Balkans experience, so perhaps we should look to the neighbors. I would suggest that putting troops from Sunni neighbor states (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi) in mixed areas for policing is lunacy. Quite frankly, with the exception perhaps of the Jordanians, we aren't talking much of an improvement over the Iraqi national army and police forces. Multisectarian policing is what we are trying to accomplish through the reforms in the Iraqi Police now, but if we were to abandon a strong Iraqi state, how do you think we would actually be able to build a multisectarian police force? (or how would the Iraqis do it on their own?) It seems likely that we would see a reversion to militias doing principal security provision, and clashing militias in the mixed areas.

3) Partition vs. Decentralization. Listen - this is partition. Biden and Gelb don't want to call it that, but let's call a spade a spade. The pressures this strategy would create for partition would be enormous.
5.10.2006 10:35am
Ilya Somin:
A brief reply to the post by Charlie:

1. Ensuring that the Sunnis get their money.

If either my scheme or Biden's is put into effect, there will initially be problems of credible commitment. However, once the payments get off the ground, these concerns can be eased. The US, if it wants to, can give the Shiite-led government strong incentives to make the payments happen. Moreover, once begun, the government will have a self-interest in continuing the payments because the alternative would be a war that is more costly than continuing to pay. Finally, under my approach (privatized shares), any attempt by the government to confiscate the shares of the Sunni would be likely to undercut the overall market value of ALL shares, including those held by Kurds and Shiites.

2. Mixed areas.

This is indeed a tough problem. Of course it would be equally or more tough under a centralized government. Ultimately, the parties will have to bargain out the exact boundaries between them. Afterwards, there will still be regional minorities. THere are two ways to protect their rights: 1) judicial review through a central constitution, and 2) mutual deterrence. I set more stock by the second. The Sunni authorities should be able to agree to protect Shiite and Kurd minorities in their midst in exchange for the latter protecting the Sunnis in their areas. Will it work perfectly? Of course not. But it's better than the alternative.

3. Does federalism =Partition?

I answer this in my piece. It is in fact the fear of a dominant central government dominated by one's enemies that leads to pressure for partition. Implementation of federalism would dampen these fears, though probably not completely eliminate them.
5.10.2006 3:17pm