Lessons for Iraq from the Former Yugoslavia

President George W. Bush recently visited Slovenia for a summit between the United States and the 27-nation European Union. Slovenia is the only success story emanating from the violent ethnic break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s after the Cold War ended. The reasons for its success, and lack thereof in some of the other new states originating from the now defunct Yugoslavia, should inform policy decisions in faraway Iraq.

Unfortunately, in the 1990s, violence during Yugoslavia’s break up tended to be directly proportional to the ethno-sectarian diversity of the geographical entity. Slovenia – the most ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous of the former Yugoslav states – had the least violence during the disintegration. After a war of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 that lasted only 10 days and killed only 70 people, Slovenia has flourished politically and economically. In contrast, in the more ethnically and religiously diverse Croatia, severe violence occurred in its subsequent war of independence. Even worse, the most ethnically and religiously heterogeneous piece of geography in the former Yugoslavia – Bosnia – had a brutal civil war with the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II. The Western powers, led by the United States, became involved and forced the parties into the uneasy Dayton peace accord.

The primary reason that Bosnia has not exploded into renewed civil war since the 1990s is the Dayton accord’s creation of a decentralized Bosnian state. Such a governing arrangement allows each group – the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims – to have autonomous governance and a veto over decisions by the weak central government. The structure is not perfect, but it has helped prevent further eruptions of ethno-sectarian carnage.

Although faraway geographically, culturally, ethnically, and religiously from the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, like Bosnia, is an artificial country containing many ethno-sectarian divisions. Also as in Bosnia, politically correct Western do-gooders – some of whom histrionically argue that decentralized autonomous rule by ethno-sectarian groups constitutes "apartheid" – would like a stronger central government in Iraq. In fact, the already decentralized Iraqi governance needs to allow even more autonomy to ethno-sectarian and tribally based jurisdictions. The difference between apartheid – in which one dominant group enforces racial, ethnic, or sectarian separation using coercive means – is much different than boundaries for autonomous governance created voluntarily by ethno-sectarian groups. We in the wealthy United States may not choose this type of voluntary ethno-sectarian-based governance – although the United States does have voluntary ethnically or racially homogeneous areas – but it may be the only means to achieve a modicum of stability in some developing countries racked with internecine ethno-sectarian violence to achieve some stability.

Unfortunately, many areas in Iraq have become more homogeneous because of forced ethnic cleansing between ethno-sectarian populations. But returning refugees to their homes would probably only rekindle the slaughter. Instead, if new autonomous regions are created, incentives may have to be provided to get them, and people stuck on the "wrong" side of the boundaries, to permanently relocate to safer areas.

In the short-term, the United States has reduced the violence in Iraq. It has done so, however, by reinforcing ethno-sectarian identities – for example, by arming and training former Sunni guerrillas and Shi’a militiamen and by relying on Iran to broker a cease-fire with the Shi’a militias of Muqtada al-Sadr. At the same time, the United States has contradictorily demanded that these same parties reconcile and share control of a central government.

Given Iraq’s history of one group dominating the central government machinery – the Sunnis – and using it to oppress the other groups – the Kurds and the Shi’a – the groups will likely eventually fight over any significant central government power. Thus, to prevent an all-out civil war when the United States finally pulls its finger out of the dike and withdraws its military forces from the country, the power of the Iraqi government will probably have to be reduced to a weak confederation of autonomous regions based on voluntary tribal or ethno-sectarian associations. And even then, the best Iraq can probably hope for is uneasy stability – similar to that afforded to Bosnia by its weak confederation.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.