Iraq Revisited: Joe Biden’s Plan

Iraq Revisited: Joe Biden’s Plan

As Vice President Joe Biden considers entering the race for the Democratic nomination for president, it is appropriate to look back upon his foreign policy record. While his overall record over four decades of public service, including two stints as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been much maligned, I believe Biden deserves credit for offering the only plan that offered any chance of long term peace and stability in postwar Iraq.

The Bush administration made two critical mistakes in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The first was the decision to disband the Iraqi Army, against the advice of senior Pentagon and State Department leadership, thereby throwing 300,000 or more unemployed and armed military age males onto the streets with nothing but their animus toward the United States. The second mistake was the “decision” to keep Iraq as a nation-state with a strong central government. I put decision in quotes because I’m not aware of any evidence that any alternative was ever considered – but it certainly should have been. And to his credit, Joe Biden considered it thoughtfully.

Iraq’s borders were drawn by the European powers after WWI to further European colonial and balance of power objectives. They have never conformed to the ethnic and sectarian diversity within the country. When post-colonial and strong man dictatorial regimes in these countries fail, sectarian and ethnic animosities often manifest in violence and “Balkanization” of the region. For years the Bush administration spent American blood and treasure trying to prevent that Balkanization and trying to retain the European model for Iraq. Biden on the other hand recommended a different approach – coopting the nationalistic Kurd, Shia, and Sunni forces in a federalism regime with high degrees of autonomy for each faction. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that plan would have offered a much greater chance for long term stability in the region.

The Bush administration often receives criticism for idealistically believing that democracy could flourish in Iraq, a region with no history of democratic tradition or pluralism. I believe that criticism is at least half right. Biden’s federalist plan wouldn’t have forced each ethnic and sectarian group into an immediate zero sum game competing for national resources, but rather would have given each group the breathing space and autonomy to develop mutual trust over time. Biden’s plan offered the only chance of fulfillment of Bush’s idealistic vision.

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