A failure to understand Iraq's history risks catastrophic blundering, likely to result in an exponential rise in the region's entropy, as US policymakers and Iraqis ponder how to deal with the violence which has engulfed Baghdad. Several pernicious myths have entered this debate and, having become accepted "facts," cause real-world harm when they influence the thinking of foreign policymakers. The myths, which assume a lack of national Iraqi identity, artificiality of the state, continuous sectarian fighting throughout history, Kurdish desire for independence, and Shi'a disloyalty, lead some to the conclusion that dividing Iraq is the best way to end the violence. Instead of building on these myths, however, the international community should create a long-term solution by working with the emerging democratic Iraq to recognize and develop its historic presence as a unified nation. The future of the country is as a cohesive, democratic, and pluralistic federation. With that understanding in mind, it will be possible to devise a strategy that averts some of the darker possible scenarios and helps return Iraq and the region to stability.
The Myth of Artificiality
The first of these myths is that Iraq is an artificial state, created in an exercise of imperial hubris during the waning days of the British Empire after World War I. The myth-makers, who are universally non-Iraqi, assert that nothing historical or cultural binds Iraq's people together. Rather, the inhabitants were forced to coexist by their British masters, who stitched together the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul into a single state. This argument is not only unhistorical, but it also has a far more destructive corollary that there is no point in attempting to hold this historic anomaly together and that its natural state should be one of division, de facto or de jure, among its three components, Shi'a Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurd. The myth ignores that Iraq is actually a nation with an ancient identity that actively took part in international affairs and modernization before the Saddamist Baathists took control. This corollary courts disaster.
To begin with, Iraq has the oldest recorded history of any country on Earth. The word "Iraq" itself is ancient, and probably dates back to Akkadian times. When medieval Islamic geographers referred to "Iraq," they meant roughly the same place we mean now. Over the 500 years it was ruled by the Ottomans, the other two provinces were not independent of Baghdad, but were administratively subordinate to it. Thus, over a span of centuries--if not millennia--the people of Iraq have been one, for all their ethnic and confessional differences. Ancient history notwithstanding, Iraq has now been a modern state for four score and seven years. Since 1920, a distinct Iraqi identity has emerged, one distinct from and layered over tribal, ethnic, and sectarian affiliations.
The process of forging an Iraqi national identity manifested itself in the country's actions on the international stage. Iraq was the first predominately Arab country to gain its independence when it was admitted into the League of Nations in 1932. It was among the 54 countries that founded the United Nations in 1945, and it was also a founder of both the League of Arab States and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This confidence and vibrancy in international affairs mirrored a high degree of internal optimism and cohesion.
Fueled by Iraq's increasing oil wealth, a burst of economic development beginning in the mid-1950s resulted in spectacular strides. By the end of 1979--the last full year before the disastrous war with Iran--Iraq was on the verge of joining the developed world. Its per capita GDP equaled that of Spain, which would enter the European Union six years later. By then, Iraq had cash on reserve in hard currency reserves totaling US$50 billion (in 1980 terms). …