The U.S. should be advocating and supporting a moderate Sunni central government for Iraq, and, if that means the country must be divided into three or four autonomous states or regions, then so be it. While this kind of solution is obvious to many in the region and in the West, and is not a new idea, it has somehow escaped the attention of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Recall that – after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – Bush had a “democracy” policy for Iraq, an idea that has never been realistic for the region. Then the Obama administration created the critically dangerous environment for the latest instability by the far too rapid extraction of U.S. forces.
The reinsertion of 300 U.S. military advisers will not make a significant difference in the latest, and largely internal, struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. What, for example, do we do when the various factions attack them?
The latest violence in Iraq is a result of: the armed incursions of the radical Sunni faction, largely composed of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS; the collapse of the U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi Army, which, incompetent as it may be, is perceived as a tool of the minority Shiite-centric government; and the resurgence of radical Shiite militias. Clearly, the leadership of the current central government must be replaced with a moderate Sunni cabal of some kind, assuming such leadership can be identified.
How to do this? In primary consultations with the Saudis, the U.S. should sit down with the other regional Sunni leaderships to come up with the general concepts and structure for the new Iraq. An essential component thereof would be the equitable division of oil revenues. Also essential would be a substantial economic stabilization plan that would be funded mostly by the Saudis and the other more affluent Sunni regional players.
Excluded from the conference described above would be radical Sunnis, in the form of ISIL or the similar armed Shiite militias, and the Iranians, unless the Iranians showed their bona fides and good faith by paying, in advance, into the economic stabilization plan described above. The amount and conditions of this payment, and associated details, would be decided between the Saudis and the Iranians.
This approach reflects the demographic realities of the region, including that the Sunnis are the overwhelming majority. This does not mean, however, that the Sunnis would necessarily run the show in a new Iraq, such as they did under Hussein and his sons. In such a conference, most of the details of the various relationships would be worked out between the parties themselves; we have no business being involved in such things, insofar as our primarily interest would be that the region does not support terrorism or threats against our interests. In that respect, however, we should expect to provide stabilizing forces as required, especially during transition periods or if the parties agree to the establishment of semi-autonomous regions.
In short, at this stage in Iraq, our role should be limited to facilitating a political resolution favoring the majority Sunni influence in the region. The Saudis and the other more affluent Sunni nations in the region should pay for it, as should the Iranians if they want to participate. This might well mean the end of Iraq as a distinct political entity and the creation of distinct and autonomous zones, defined primarily by religious boundaries.