Last night I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing a talk at the GWU Elliott School by Reidar Visser about the long history of 'imperial Iraq strategies'. Visser has written some of the most interesting analysis of the Shia areas of Iraq - in addition to his monthly online essays, check out his new book on Basra and his volume on Iraqi federalism edited with Gareth Stansfield. I've followed his work for a long time, but had never met him until now. It was especially useful to get a close reading of developments in Iraqi Shia politics - for those who couldn't be at GW last night, he will also be speaking as part of a very interesting panel at the US Institute for Peace on January 29.
Visser's talk primarily focused on his worries about the use and abuse of historical analogies in the current discourse on Iraq. As a good historian, he tried to demonstrate that facile understandings of Iraqi history are informing poor policy recommendations today. Most of all, he argues that neither soft partition nor enduring civil war have any real basis in Iraqi history. Most of the talk reviewed a long series of maps documenting the variety of territorial and political arrangements of the territory currently constituted as Iraq over the last 1400 years.
On US policy, he argued that while Bush's rhetoric is very strong on territorial integrity
Visser finished his talk by offering an alternative approach which he claims would be wildly popular with most Iraqis, including: affirm Iraqi unity by changoing
the Iraqi constitution to avoid ethnic federal entitites (while continuing to respect the special status of the Kurdish areas), accept international
The one group which he thinks would not embrace such a concept is the current batch of sectarian leaders whose position depends on a sectarian organization of the Iraqi political system. A problem with American ‘threat of withdrawal’ under current conditions is that current sectarian leaders shrug their shoulders because they’ve had a 5 year head start to arm and prepare for civil war. That played into one of his most consistent, and important, arguments: that the Americans tend to focus on the few Green Zone politicians with which they feel comfortable and ignore the wide range of nationalist and popular movements who don't "fit." He was particularly scathing about the American treatment of the Sadrists, but Fadhila and a wide array of other movements would equally fit the bill. (He mainly focused on the Shia, it's worth noting - he didn't talk much about the Sunni side of things, where things have obviously changed significantly with the 'tribal strategy' and 'Anbar model'.)
He had a lot of fascinating things to say about Basra and about Shia politics more generally. Over dinner he talked a lot about the struggle for the governor's office in Basra, and noted to some effect the inability of the Supreme Council to establish its power in Basra despite all of the advantages of controlling the national state. This also complicates ISCI's 'super-region' strategy, according to Visser: a super-region without Basra would be a booby-prize, but he sees it as highly unlikely that Basra would vote in favor of the super-region should it be put to a referendum. I have no idea if he's right about that, but he knows a lot more about Basra than I do.
There was a lot more, I'm sure, but those are the major points which I remember from last evening - for those interested, many of the ideas and arguments can be found in the various essays posted at Visser's website.