Timing, the old saying goes, is everything. Just ask Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat. For years, he has been sounding the bell about the need to devolve Iraq into its constituent parts: one Kurdish, one Sunni and one Shi'ite. And for years, his suggestions about Iraqi "federalism" have fallen on deaf ears. But now, in the wake of Gen. David Petraeus' long-awaited September report on the "surge," Mr. Biden's idea for the former Ba'athist state is suddenly getting some traction.
On Sept. 27, the Senate voted on Mr. Biden's proposal to "actively support" the "creation of federal regions [in Iraq], consistent with the wishes of the Iraqi people and their elected leaders." The nonbinding measure passed resoundingly, tallying up 75 votes in favor and just 23 against. Ever since, the concept of Iraqi "federalism" has been at the center of a political firestorm. The White House has expressed its opposition to Mr. Biden's plan, with President Bush himself calling it a "very bad idea." Iraqi political leaders have done the same, and President Nouri al-Maliki has gone so far as to dispatch a formal letter of protest to the senator.
Mr. Maliki's aggravation is understandable. After all, Iraq's post-Saddam constitution does recognize the country's inherent "federal system," but Iraq's democratically elected government has opted to preserve strong central control as a bulwark against separatism and instability. This effort may be experiencing problems, but the Biden plan, with its call for a transfer of authority away from Baghdad, looks more than a little bit like Congress is second-guessing Iraq's sovereign choices.
Then there is the security dimension. Lawmakers have expressed optimism that Iraqis will embrace the "Balkan model" of devolved governance that was implemented in Bosnia in the 1990s, even though they admit that the Middle East has no experience with it. But a different outcome is equally possible. Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions run deep, and new boundaries are not likely to erase either historical grievances or resource competition taking place on the ground. Rather, "federalism" could soon give way to real partition, and the United States may find itself managing not one unstable state but three consolidated fiefdoms at war with one another — with ample assistance from interested third parties such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against Iraqi "federalism," however, has to do with the health of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Today, politicians and analysts in Turkey are focused overwhelmingly on a number of interrelated security challenges: the long-running Kurdish insurgency in that country's southeast, the activities of Kurdish separatists across the border in "Iraqi Kurdistan," and the politically active Kurdish enclaves in both Syria and Iran. For Turkish leaders, the nightmare scenario is the emergence of an independent Kurdish state that straddles all of these fronts.
Iraqi "federalism," if implemented, has the potential to make that nightmare a reality. A quasi-autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq's north can be expected to draw support from the Kurdish populations in Iraq's neighbors and fan secessionist flames among Turkey's own ethnic Kurdish minority. The risks have not been lost on officials in Ankara, who have spoken out vocally against what they see as the "worst scenario for the people of Iraq and the whole region."
The possibility should be worrisome to Western officials as well. Turkey is one of the NATO's most important strategic players, and the alliance's lone outpost in the greater Middle East. A Turkey struggling with growing Kurdish separatism will not be so quick to cooperate with those that it views as responsible for exacerbating its security problems. In a very real sense, therefore, the cost of the Biden plan could be the neutering of NATO, as the United States mortgages future alliance operations on its hopes for a new political order in Iraq.
Mr. Biden and his colleagues should certainly be commended for their creative thinking about how to bring stability to Iraq. But the onus is also on them to explain whether their plan will truly be worth the probable political and strategic costs.