How to Get Out of Iraq

Political science scholar and international adviser Brendan O'Leary maintains that the Iraq constitution offers the best framework for stability and democracy.
March 1, 2009

Brendan O’Leary thinks the best thing for Iraq and its neighbors is not a strong Baghdad-based government but a decentralized federation of provinces. In fact, that’s what the Iraqi Constitution calls for. 

In his new book, How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity, O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and director of the Penn Program in Ethnic Conflict, notes that the preposition “with integrity” in the title means “with honesty.” He cautions, “There is no reason why America’s withdrawal from Iraq should be as dishonest as its intervention has been judged to be. But many of those who want America to withdraw from Iraq make dishonest arguments, and these arguments are confronted here.”

O’Leary’s opinion is based on a career of not just research but of close-up experience with violence and diplomacy. He is the author and editor of numerous books on terrorism and Iraq. His research interests include theories of the liberal democratic state, nationalism, national and ethnic conflict regulation, political violence, and power sharing in deeply divided places. He has applied that academic study to help staunch some of the world’s most bitter bloodshed. He was a political advisor to the British Labour Cabinet on Northern Ireland and has advised Irish, British and American government ministers and officials during the Northern Ireland peace process. He has also worked as a constitutional advisor for the European Union and the United Nations. Most recently, he has been an international constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, assisting in preparation for negotiations of the Transitional Administrative Law, the electoral systems design, the Constitution of Iraq and the Constitution of the Kurdistan Region. O’Leary has also been an expert witness on Iraq to branches of the U.S. government as well as to the United Kingdom’s Iraq Commission.

"The United States must use its diplomatic and other forms of power to stabilize Iraq's neighborhood to give the new federation a chance to work." -Brendan O'Leary

One of the most dishonest claims about Iraq, O’Leary claims, is that it needs a strong central government in Baghdad.  Both history and current events suggest otherwise. He observes, “If there were an easy way to achieve the centralized and integrated state that treated all individuals as equals, who could object? But to argue for that in the face of palpable and deep differences between Kurds and Arabs, between Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs, is a dangerous pipedream.”

O’Leary counsels that the Constitution, hammered out under U.S. protection (although not under its instruction) and endorsed by a large majority of Iraqi voters, offers the best framework for stability and democracy. The new state will be a federation made up of the former nation’s ethnically dominated regions. The constitution provides each region with its own military security and the freedom to run its own affairs. The nation’s oil wealth will be distributed among the regions, with each federation controlling revenues from new oil pumped in its area.

The best way to support the new constitutional order, O’Leary argues, is through a well organized withdrawal of U.S. forces, first to military bases inside Iraq’s borders and then out of the country altogether at the request of elected authorities. “It is best to withdraw substantively sooner rather than later,” he writes, “because that offers the best way to stabilize the prospects of the Constitution.” A quicker withdrawal, while the Baghdad government is relatively weak, will require it to negotiate with all the federation partners. It will also keep the new state from posing a threat to its neighbors.

“The argument is, finally, that the United States must use its diplomatic and other forms of power to stabilize Iraq’s neighborhood to give the new federation a chance to work,” O’Leary says. At the end of How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity, the author calls this approach giving the new federation “a chance to breathe.” In the first paragraphs of the book, he relates the story of a Kurdish soldier who commented when he heard that a new constitution had been ratified, “We will read the Constitution, but we will polish our weapons.”