Why the Next President Must Regionalize Iraq

29 July 2016 13:13
Why the Next President Must Regionalize Iraq

In May 2006, then-Sen. Biden and foreign policy writer Leslie Gelbproposed a plan to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions along sectarian lines. At the time, many dismissed and derided the proposal. Now, a long, deadly decade later, the next American president would be wise to embrace it.

Of course, 10 years ago, the Biden plan would have failed. It was built on a theory that didn’t fit the harsh realities on the ground. The country needed the 2007 surge—increased troops, intelligence and diplomacy brought unparalleled security. Then, the vacuum created after the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops led to enormous global insecurity with the creation of ISIS.

One of the many foreign policy challenges the next president will inherit is what to do about Iraq. It will be just as pressing as the continuing war on terror, because any peace in the struggle against terrorism requires addressing the dangerous imbalance in Iraq. The U.S., having twice invaded Iraq since 1991, has a more direct and immediate moral responsibility to shepherd a solution.

The same old, same old policy, however, will only extend the cycle of false starts and violence that has inflamed Iraq for nearly a generation. To that end, the next president must break sharply with conventional wisdom and make regionalization of Iraq a policy centerpiece.

In order to drive ISIS from the Iraqi regions it now occupies—about a third of the country—the local tribes must have a reason to rise up and defeat terrorists. U.S. and regional-led intelligence, special forces, information and psychological operations, and diplomatic assistance can accelerate the process.

This strategy worked during the Sawha, or Awakening, in 2007-2008 that gave birth to the Sons of Iraq, local Sunni volunteers organized in seven Iraqi provinces to protect their communities, and can work again if there is a credible promise made to Sunni Arabs—followed with clear and consistent policies.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government, which enjoyed support from Washington and Tehran, broke its promises to the Sons of Iraq after they successfully drove al Qaeda in Iraq from Anbar providence and slammed shut sectarian progress, emboldened by the withdrawal of U.S. troops. These promises implied a greater degree of self-determination, yet Baghdad marginalized and effectively rubbed out the very groups that achieved victory over al Qaeda.


Doing the right thing in this instance doesn’t require “nation-building” or “regime change.” Rather Washington—to the extent we’re still relevant—must simply give regional actors permission to do what is just and rational.

So, if President Clinton or President Trump wants to spare their eventual successor a similar burden, they should start by seeing Iraq for what it is and not what they want it to be. And they should thank Mr. Biden for his foresight.