Which American has done the most harm to Iraq in the twenty-first century? The competition is stiff, with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer, among others, to choose from. But, given his game efforts to grab the spotlight, it seems churlish not to state the case for Vice President Joe Biden.
As he rarely failed to mention while a presidential candidate, Biden traveled to Iraq seven times between the 2003 invasion and the 2008 primaries. He has made several more trips as number two in the Obama White House, most recently over the July 4 weekend to “reaffirm” the US commitment to Iraq amidst the throes of forming a new government. As evidenced by the frequent flying to Baghdad, Biden is point man for Iraq in the administration, a job he seems to have been given as part of the president’s surrender of foreign policy to his campaign rivals, chiefly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The drafting of Biden was intended to lend foreign policy heft to the young Barack Obama’s candidacy; Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his many fans in the mainstream press reliably cheer his “seriousness” about international issues as compared to other Democrats. This reputation is bizarre, given his actual record. Indeed, the outsourcing of Iraq policy to Biden shows what a low priority it is for the White House, which is primarily concerned to bolster the narrative that, come September 1, the US war in Iraq will be over. Faced with challenges to that storyline, such as the wrangling over a new Iraqi government, the White House really has no idea what to do. Its fallback position is to plead that the government be “representative,” a fine concept that cloaks the deepest flaw in the US view of Iraqi politics.
Biden stumped for president as a critic of the Iraq war, a persona he invented on the fly, as it were, because public opinion on the mission unaccomplished was souring. In 2002, he voted for Bush’s authorization of force resolution, calling Saddam Hussein “an inevitable threat” to global security.
But he will be remembered for the “Biden plan” that he developed later, with advice from the disgraced former UN official Peter Galbraith, recommending that Washington encourage the devolution of the Iraqi state into three autonomous federal regions, one “Sunni,” one “Shiite” and one “Kurdish.” This cockamamie idea, all the more inexplicable coming from a senator who boasted of his multiple visits to Iraq, both drew upon and fed the fiction that Iraq is uniquely artificial among the nation-states of the world.
Americans had already been conditioned by countless CNN graphics to view Iraq as three countries rather than one, each of “the Sunnis,” “the Shiites” and “the Kurds” living in homogeneous areas separated by imaginary straight lines on the map. Bremer, prodded by the twin Kurdish parties and sectarian Shiite Islamists, superimposed this map upon the real Iraq when he insisted in 2003 that his Iraqi Governing Council be composed of “representatives” of each of the various ethno-sectarian communities. Ever since, when US officials apply the term “representative” to Iraq, this de facto quota system is what they mean.
Biden’s twist was to suggest that the imaginary lines be drawn administratively. Of course, he forgot all about his plan once he signed up on the Obama ticket and there is no danger that the White House will resurrect it. But the underlying tendency to peer at Iraq through the ethno-sectarian lens remains: Tony Blinken and Puneet Talwar, two top Biden advisers from his Senate days, head up the Iraq policy team on Obama’s National Security Council. On the July 4 trip, the vice president was reportedly disturbed that the Iraqis haggling over the new cabinet were not reserving the presidency for a “Sunni.”
The Iraqis rebuffed him, and it is tempting to conclude that the continued fixation on ethno-sectarian representativeness renders US interventions ineffectual and — therefore — harmless. “Quota” and muhasasa, Arabic for “allotment” by communal identity, are dirty words in Iraq, where (outside of Kurdistan) most politicians prefer to appeal to national unity. And of course, Biden’s silly conceits have not done as much damage to Iraq as the attack-Iraq chorus conducted by Cheney and Wolfowitz, the invasion ordered by Bush and the occupation bungled by Bremer.
Once the notion of muhasasa was planted, however, it sank roots. Whole cadres of communal party members and their relatives have been ensconced in ministries and, underneath the rhetoric of national unity, the competing lists in the 2010 parliamentary elections were clearly composed along ethno-sectarian lines. The Iraqis in power, moreover, wish to please the Americans even as they must appear to be bucking them. Perhaps the jet-setting Joe Biden will remind future historians that imperial interventions shape the politics of vanquished realms long after the emperor has lost his luggage, if not yet his clothes.