Iraq: Purple or Still Black and Blue?
February 7, 2005
In the rich of tradition of ''inside the beltway'' political gimmicks, the all-too-giddy congressional Republicans at
President Bush’s recent State of the Union address dipped their fingers in purple ink to show solidarity with Iraqis who
voted in the U.S.-initiated Iraqi election. That smugness will likely come back to bite them. The predictable voter
turnout in various areas of the country portends a precarious future for a unified U.S.-like federation. In fact, in the
future, such Republican crowing might well be ridiculed as much as the President’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was
after guerrilla warfare broke out in Iraq.
I admire the courage of Iraqis braving significant risks going to the polls, but the congressional Republicans, sitting
safely in the U.S. Capitol thousands of miles away from the Iraqi violence, cared less about the Iraqis and more about
scoring public relations points for the president against the Democrats in front of a nationwide TV audience. Those
Republicans were as close to the dangers the Iraqis faced as armchair Super Bowl fans were close to the risk of injury
on the field.
When armed guerrillas roam the countryside, even a free and fair democratic vote may be irrelevant to the outcome.
According to a New York Times article from 1967, the Johnson administration was pleased as punch then about an 83
percent voter turnout in South Vietnamese elections. We all know how that conflict turned out: the majority went to the
polls and the armed minority eventually went to the halls of power.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the key to peace and prosperity is to get the armed minority to cease committing acts of
violence. To do that, the U.S. government must honestly examine why the Sunni insurgents are fighting. Instead, the
president calls the rebels terrorists, criminals, and holdovers from Saddam’s regime. In fact, although some of them
fall into those categories, experts agree that most are average Sunnis battling the perceived foreign occupier and
fearing that any new Shiite government would exact reprisals for years of oppressive Sunni rule. The insurgency wouldn’t
be nearly so effective without substantial support in the Sunni community.
If the president and the Republican Congress really wanted to do the Iraqi people a favor—after authorizing an unneeded
invasion, which caused widespread chaos and violence against Iraqis—they would abandon the illusion that merely allowing
the Iraqis to vote will eventually make them free and prosperous.
Iraq was carved out of three provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire by the British in the 1920s and has been an
artificial country ever since. The country, with fractious ethnic/religious groups, has been held together only by brute
force. Saddam Hussein was only the latest in a long line of autocratic Sunni rulers and was brutal, in part, to hold the
make-believe country together. If given a real choice—instead of the constrained option offered by a heavily armed
occupying power to elect the leaders of a unified U.S.-like federation—Iraqis might want a looser confederation, with
increased autonomy for various ethnic/religious groups, or even a partition of the country into separate states. Leading
experts say that federations are usually unsuccessful when a society’s ethnic/religious fissures are strong—as in the
case of Iraq.
Genuine self-determination that would probably lead to such decentralized governance—accompanied by a rapid withdrawal
of U.S. forces—would likely take the fire out of the insurgency. The foreign occupier would be gone and no strong
central government would exist to threaten to oppress groups that didn’t control it. Security could be provided locally,
rather than nationally, using existing Kurdish and Shiite militias and insurgents converted to security forces in Sunni
areas. Some argue that such decentralization would lead to a civil war because clean lines do not exist among the
various groups in certain areas of the country—for example, in some large cities. But in a confederation, cities could
compose their own autonomous units. Or if partition ensued, the areas in new states would not have to be contiguous.
After all, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin islands are not contiguous with the continental United
So instead of engaging in publicity stunts by dying their fingers purple, members of Congress could better spend their
time pushing the Bush administration to give the Iraqis a real chance to end the violence that is making their country
black and blue. Real freedom for the people of Iraq, which would most likely decentralize Iraqi governance, offers the
best hope for long-term stability and prosperity there.
is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty
at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes
, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy