Separate & Succeed?

Stephen DeAngelis

August 17, 2006

As the Iraqi insurgency drags on, more and more Americans are wondering how and when the occupation is going to end. When the Bush administration went into Iraq, it did so with the full intention of keeping Iraq together as a functioning nation-state. That outcome looks far less likely with each passing day. For many, however, the alternative — a division of Iraq into three states — seems unworkable if not unpalatable. A little over a decade ago the same concerns were being expressed about the civil war raging in the former state of Yugoslavia. A New York Times editorial [“Now Some Good News,16 August 2006]” looks back on what has happened over the past decade and declares there has been enormous progress.

In 1995, civil war ended in Bosnia, leaving 200,000 dead, half of those who survived displaced, and 90 percent of the infrastructure destroyed. When the United States and Europe began trying to put Bosnia back together, critics said nation-building was a fool’s errand. They were wrong. Today Bosnia is a mostly harmonious, increasingly prosperous country on the way to becoming normal.

There were more lessons learned in Bosnia, however, than the fact that nation-building done right can succeed. Security had to be established before nation-building could succeed. In Iraq, insurgents continue to destroy critical infrastructure almost as soon as it has been repaired. They want blackouts, poor sanitation, and general unrest among the people. Achieving security in Yugoslavia was no easy feat. Eventually the decision was made to end the civil war by formally carving up the former Yugoslavia into different states. Eventually this process resulted in eight separate entities (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the autonomous areas of Kosovo and Vojvodina). The editorial discusses what happened in the most problematic of those states, Bosnia.

The international community, once it got involved, did not stint. After Slobodan Milosevic, the war’s perpetrator, was pressured into signing a peace accord, Bosnia became an international protectorate. A country of only four million was policed by 60,000 NATO troops and governed by a series of international High Representatives, who had near total control over the bitterly divided ethnic groups. It was hard. Even the task of getting refugees safely back into their houses seemed nearly impossible. But things improved. The robust international force established security. The High Representative sacked mayors and held back aid from villages that refused to reintegrate. The international tribunal in The Hague removed many war criminals — the very men causing postwar problems.

Compare that description of what happened in Bosnia to what is happening in Iraq and one can see parallels. The Bush administration would like to believe that Iraq is in a post-conflict, rebuilding phase, but it may actually have more resemblance to the civil war, pre-breakup phase of the Yugoslavia civil war. If that portrayal of the situation is accurate, then Iraq is likely to end up as three separate states. A Kurdish state in the north, a Sunnia state in the middle, and Shi’ite state in the south. If that occurs, policymakers need to be thinking hard about a new “Dayton Accord” for Iraq that can speed the situation into its next phase. There are going to be enormous challenges going forward. First, Turkey does not want to see a Kurdish state anywhere in the Middle East. They fear that such a development would inevitably lead to a call for a greater Kurdistan that would encompass territory now part of Turkey. Then, of course, there are the oil reserves (and the revenues they generate) that are located primarily in the south of Iraq. Some revenue sharing arrangement must emerge if peace is to be sustainable. Can a breakup of Iraq really lead to peace and prosperity? It happened in the former Yugoslavia.

By 2000, Bosnia was speedily reintegrating, and it is now free of ethnic violence. Even the rate of common crime is low by European standards. Bosnia’s politicians lag, but are increasingly working together. Some government tasks, like customs and tax collection, have been centralized. In the army, soldiers of all ethnic groups serve together. Serb Republic politicians still talk of breaking away, but are pragmatically working with the federation. The Office of the High Representative will close next year, and it is time for the country to stand on its own. Bosnians, of all ethnic groups, are eager to join the European Union, which should provide pressure for further political and economic reform. Living in a good neighborhood (Europe) is part of the reason for Bosnia’s good news. But nation-building also succeeded because no one scrimped.

Unfortunately, the New York Times editorial ends with a potshot at the Bush administration for not learning the lessons of Bosnia, but it doesn’t highlight all of the lessons that should have been learned.

It is impossible to say if a much larger peacekeeping force or more attentive leadership would have made the same difference in Iraq. But the Bush administration chose to ignore plenty of early warnings — much of them drawn from the lessons of Bosnia.

By focusing on the well-known complaint that the Bush administration tried to bring peace to Iraq on the cheap, the editorial staff missed an equally important lesson from Bosnia — that the real road to peace in Bosnia began with the division of the former Yugoslavia. I’m aware that some pundits believe that separation of Iraq into ethnic groupings is a slippery slope that could encourage ethnic cleansing elsewhere. But in states where the rights of minorities are protected and opportunities are available to all, this need not occur. With over 5000 recognized ethnic groups in the world, it’s clear that autonomy for all groups could result in chaos and instability. Most ethnic leaders understand that both security and prosperity benefit from connectivity, not separation. Leaders of states that were once part of the former Yugoslavia have once again started to cooperate, recognizing that such cooperation is in the best interests of everyone involved. The same thing will happen in Iraq should it be divided into three states.