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The author, a veteran observer of the international political scene, proposes a different solution to nation building in Iraq: a government based on control dispersed through provincial centers. As the time grows close for the scheduled transfer of power, Dr. Holliday’s suggestion deserves an airing. — Ed.

A Federation for Iraq?

In April UN envoy Lakhadar Brahimi advanced a proposal for the transition of authority in Iraq on June 30. And Ambassador John Negroponte has been designated as the head of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after June that date. In March, Iraqi leaders agreed on an interim constitution. These events provide an opportunity to lay out the shape of an interim government for Iraq.

This opportunity should be seized quickly; an Iraq federation of eighteen provinces, rather than a unitary state, should be created. This would provide the best hope of bringing stability to Iraq as soon as possible.

Since the end of the twenty-one-day initial campaign in Iraq, the United States and the Coalition regrettably have followed an approach that is best described as neo-colonial. The over-riding goal of this approach has been to establish a sovereign central government for Iraq that duplicates Western ideas about democracy and elections. The result has been a focus on the centralization of authority in Baghdad in order to create and maintain legitimacy, the rule of law, and administrative capability to govern all of Iraq.

Unfortunately it appears that this approach is likely to be continued. There are plans for a large embassy staff in Baghdad. This would be a tragic mistake.

It is time to abandon the neo-colonial approach and to establish a federation of eighteen provinces. While Iraq has been divided into eighteen provinces since 1925, they have been only subordinate administrative units of the central government. Now it is time to give them the authority to govern and to represent their people. The goal should be to replace the setting that breeds radicalism and hatred for America with one that values freedom, cooperation, self-determination, stability, and self-sufficiency.

In the nineteenth century, many technologically advanced countries established preeminent influence over less-developed, indigenous peoples throughout the world. Since colonialists justified their actions in terms of noble and humanitarian goals, colonialism was often referred to as “the white man’s burden.” Today neo-colonialists use other words—democracy building, human rights, equal justice under law, universal suffrage, a free press, a free market economic system, and modernization—to justify similar attitudes and actions. They are quick to claim, however, that they are not colonialists because they are not seeking to impose political or economic dependency. Since the fall of the Saddam regime the efforts of the coalition to create a new Iraqi state nevertheless are best seen as a continuation of the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishments in the United States and Europe for several centuries, and of the UN since 1945.

Rather than impose Western ideals of democracy on Iraq, the aim should be to build on non-Western ideas of democracy. Starting in Greece, Western democracy was built on the individual and the supremacy of state authority through the rule of law. However, there is a long tradition of non-Western democracy in China and India that is built on groups of individuals (families, tribes, clans, guilds, or villages). The regulation of most social, cultural, and economic activities in Iraq should be left similarly to the myriad of local groups and assemblies.

Both Western and non-Western democracy are ways to achieve the basic requirements of sovereignty:

    • (1) a monopoly on the use of force, and
    • (2) the ability to regulate behavior.

Western democracies usually achieve this by the central government controlling the military forces and having the authority to make and adjudicate laws. Non-western democracies have traditionally used militias to insure order at the local level, and have relied on custom and traditions to regulate most behavior — using the law primarily for criminal acts.

It is true that democracy means majority rule, together with the protection of minorities. But majority rule necessarily means that the faction with the most people rules. Iraq has more Shiites than Sunnis and Kurds; if power were determined by Western style elections, the Shiite religious leaders probably would establish a theocracy. For the immediate future Iraq needs a self-regulating equilibrium among the various factions, so that the ruling majority is not controlled by the Shiite religious leaders. The ruling major must a union of those from the multiplicity of religious, tribal, secular, regional, and commercial factions that want a better future for Iraq.

The assumption that all votes are equal, at least for political purposes, is the bedrock of democracy. Yet democracy as a concept says nothing about who are the enfranchised citizens that can vote. In fifth century B.C. Athens, voters were one in eighteen of the total population. At the same time among the Lichchhavis in northern India, it was one in twenty. Only in the West since 1887, and among UN bureaucrats since 1945, have universal suffrage, “One Man, One Vote,” and elections been seen as essential aspects of democracy — and they are still considered an aspect of colonialism by most of the world.

In the past century democracy in the West has moved past political equality to legislated equality in economic, social, and cultural matters. With this has emerged what this observer sees as the defects in democracy:

  • (1) the poor being able to vote themselves the wealth of the rich,
  • (2) an increase in government employees to enforce equality, and
  • (3) an inability of the country to unite behind foreign policies. It follows that suffrage in Iraq should not be universal; the votes of individuals in Western style elections should not be the only way to select those to represent the people of Iraq.

It is time to break away from conventional wisdom and to seek the most efficient and effective way to establish governmental structures and processes that provide some representation for all of the people of Iraq. How should a provisional government be achieved? Conventional wisdom has produced several dead-end solutions. These are:

  • (1) to select a plausible democrat as the leader for a unitary Iraqi government, or to let the Iraqi Governing Council elect such a leader,
  • (2) to have caucuses in all provinces elect members of a unitary Iraqi government,
  • (3) to have directed elections for a unitary Iraqi government, and
  • (4) to divide Iraqi into three parts (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish).

There is, this writer holds, another alternative with greater potential:

  • The coalition would instruct the tribal, religious, and secular leaders of each province to establish local and provincial governmental structures and processes, as they deem appropriate by June 30th. Iraqi customs and traditions would determine how leaders were selected — not Western political thought on democracy. The efforts of Ambassador Negroponte, and of all other counties in the coalition, would be directed toward establishing effective governments in each province, rather than in attempted to establish a unitary government in Baghdad to govern all of Iraq.
  • Interim officials (president, vice presidents, prime minister and the heads of each ministry of the central government) would be selected by the coalition.
  • Rather than being dissolved (as proposed by Mr. Brahimi), the Iraqi Governing Council would be converted into an interim senate for Iraq with responsibility for writing a final constitution and the naming of a head of state — maybe even a king. The constitution would have to specify how to resolve differences between the provinces and the central government. The constitution would have to make reference to the relationship between mosque and state so as to avoid a theocracy, yet to provide for the various religious organizations and the state to mutually support each other for the good of all Iraqis.
  • After June 30th each provincial government would name its representatives to a House of Iraqis.
  • Then the House would confirm, or replace, all interim officials selected prior to June 30 by the coalition.

After all of this is accomplished and there is a functioning provisional federal government and governments in each province, the Iraqis themselves could start the process of building a new Iraq. The coalition could slowly be drawn down, as Iraqi security forces become capable of handling internal security.

It is true that at the end of the initial campaign of combat the Coalition did not have the appropriate forces, strategy, or attitude to deal with insurgents (terrorists, die-hard Baathists, and criminals). Coalition troops were unable to provide civil control and assistance or to prevent looting. Stabilizing forces with the appropriate language skills, cultural knowledge, organization, and training were lacking. Ideally the Coalition should have had stabilizing forces ready to go into each village, town and province. The Coalition did have combat forces to conduct search-and-destroy raids. It did have dreams of a government in Baghdad that reflected Western values, and macro economic plans for all of Iraq. And the Coalition did adapt its troops to the problems it confronted and achieved some remarkable successes.

Yet the neo-colonial orientation prevented a rapid move to a stable Iraq state. The Iraqi army and police were demobilized, rather than being used for local security. The de-Baathification was done in way that prevented a smooth transition to new governmental structures and procedures. Tribal leaders were ignored. It would have been better to move toward a federation of eighteen provinces immediately after the active campaign.

How, then, can a federation of eighteen provinces now be established in Iraq?

The model of the new Iraq could be nineteenth century Switzerland with its cantons, or Lebanon with its rotation of key posts, or Malaysia, or Tunisia, or the United Arab Emirates.

  • Authority should be decentralized as much as possible, and the daily lives of the Iraqi people should be governed by local customs and traditions.
  • Each of the provinces should have a governor elected by the people of that province, police capable of providing local security, and a legal system of laws and procedure for the punishment of crimes and the resolution of all disputes other than those of trade and commerce.
  • The federal government in Baghdad should control the armed forces and be capable of
    • (1) defending Iraq’s borders,
    • (2) preventing the succession of any province,
    • (3) preventing the division of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. It should also be responsible for foreign policy, currency and monetary policy, the coordination of inter-province activities, and law regarding trade and commerce.
  • There should be an independent agency for the supervision of petroleum related activities. The Iraqis should determine the allocation of the petroleum revenue. No prescription by foreigners (philosophers, economists, or political scientists) would be as satisfactory as an appropriate revenue-sharing formula, with appropriate incentives, developed by the Iraqis themselves.

At this time it would be foolhardy to attempt to build a Western democratic Iraqi nation-state, although a non-Western democratic federation could provide stability and self-government. This would be government of the people, by the people and for the people. Recent events show that there should be no delay. Also such a federation could provide conditions for the Iraqis to achieve their own dignity through self-evolution into a free, orderly, open, and self-sufficient country — and hopefully in time to a democratic nation state. 

May 2004

Contents copyright © 2004 by Armiger Cromwell Center, Pittsboro, NC 27312. Published by permission.


Sam C. Holliday is a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, a former director of Stability Studies at the Army War College, and a retired army colonel. He earned a masters in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in international relations from the University of South Carolina.


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