A Little Transparency, Please

In recent days, Peter Galbraith has become a go-to analyst on Iraq’s constitutional squabbles. By his own account, as he told Brian Lehrer on WNYC yesterday, he sat through nearly all the testy negotiations over the final draft.

His voice is particularly credible because he is emphatically supporting the new constitution after a period of criticizing both the initial invasion of Iraq and its follow-up (views expressed mostly through his long articles for the decidedly lefty New York Review of Books). He approves of the final draft because it acknowledges that, as he put it to Lehrer, “Iraq is not a country.”

The constitution that Iraqis will vote on October 15 will, if approved, lead to a federated system, with three mostly autonomous regions: Kurd in the north, Shiite in the South, and a more mixed but heavily Sunni middle. This is why the Sunnis (and some Shiites in the middle, like Moqtada Al-Sadr) have a problem with it. Among other things, the breakup means less Sunni control over oil revenue, which comes mostly from the north and south.

But Galbraith thinks splitting the country’s a great thing. And he’s been preaching it all over the place, most prominently in David Brooks’ New York Times column last Thursday. The money quote that Galbraith gave Brooks: “It’s not a problem if a country breaks up, only if it breaks up violently. Iraq wasn’t created by God. It was created by Winston Churchill.” (Iraq was formed after World War I by the British, who cobbled together three segments of the former Ottoman Empire, and then spent much of the 1920’s trying to keep them together. Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That’s what that was all about.) To the conservative Brooks’ delight, Galbraith also declared that, in serving as midwife for the new constitution, “The Bush administration finally did something right.”

So far, no foul. Galbraith has his well-argued reasons for supporting the constitution and he knows how to express them. A federated state, in his eyes, makes the most sense. As Brooks paraphrases it: “This constitution gives each group what it wants. It will create a very loose federation in which only things like fiscal and foreign policy are controlled in the center (even tax policy is decentralized).”

But yesterday we noticed something strange at the bottom of a Washington Post’s article on the constitutional deliberations. There, Galbraith is described as “a former U.S. diplomat and an advisor to the Kurds.”

An advisor to the Kurds?

Not only that, Galbriath is then quoted as if he’s a Kurdish spokesman, asserting that, should this constitution not pass the referendum, the Kurds will push for full independence. Or, as he puts it, apparently on the Kurds’ behalf: “If this constitution is rejected, the next negotiations are going to be about the partition of the country.”

Nowhere else — certainly not on the Brian Lehrer show nor in the David Brooks column — did Galbriath mention this night job of his. And it’s kind of an important disclosure. His views have a much different color if he’s not just “former United States ambassador to Croatia” or “former Director for Political, Constitutional and Electoral Affairs for the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor,” as he’s most often described.

An advisor to the Kurds would no doubt support a constitution that gives wide-ranging autonomy to this long-disenfranchised and persecuted people. An advisor to the Kurds would be much less likely to look seriously at the complaints of the Sunnis, dismissing them, as Galbraith did on the Brian Lehrer show and in the Brooks piece, as just a bunch of disgruntled former Baathists.

A little research shows that Galbraith has a long history of helping the Kurdish cause. It was he, in the late 1980s, who first exposed Saddam’s genocidal “al-anfal” campaign in which chemical weapons were dropped on Kurdish villages. He pushed for sanctions against Iraq in 1988. After the Gulf War, he made his way though Kurdish rebel-held country collecting accounts of atrocities committed against the Kurds and helping create the impetus for turning northern Iraq into a no-fly safe haven. Then, in 1992, he somehow managed to sneak out 14 tons of Iraqi secret police documents, detailing the horrific treatment of the Kurds and bringing attention to their cause.

There’s nothing wrong with Galbraith championing and supporting the Kurds. They are a people with a history of much peresecution, and they probably couldn’t find a more articulate and able spokesman in the West.

But Galbraith shouldn’t be trying, even by omission, to present himself as an independent analyst — able to objectively weigh the pluses and minuses of something as important as Iraq’s constitution — if, in reality, he’s actually got a horse in this race. And Brooks and Lehrer shouldn’t be enabling that deception.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.