"If our mission is to build a unified, stable and democratic Iraq, we will have our troops there for along time," he told an audience of about 200 people during a lecture in Brattleboro, Vt., last week. "But we cannot build a nation where none exists."
Galbraith, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia in the mid-1990s and is one of the leading experts on Iraq in the United States, knows a little something about nation building.
He contrasted the diplomatic and military efforts to bring peace to the Balkans to what has happened in the last 2 1/2 years in Iraq. The Clinton administration, Galbraith said, had a plan for occupation and sent competent professionals to carry it out. U.S. troops are still in the Balkans, but 10 years after they arrived, not one U.S. soldier has died due to hostile action.
And then there 's the Bush administration's actions in Iraq. Galbraith said the Bush administration saw Iraq "as a place for political patronage and an ideological crusade." The series of inept actions by people sent to Iraq by the Bush administration -- people who had absolutely no clue how to rebuilt a shattered nation -- particularly a shattered nation with no history of unity except under dictatorship -- helped make the insurgency possible.
Given the long standing religious and ethnic divisions between the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, the idea of a unified, multiethnic, democratic Iraq is not achievable. Galbraith has been one of the leading proponents of letting happen what has already begun to happen in Iraq, namely letting the three groups control their own regions of the country under a federation. As a result, the U.S. should bow to the inevitable and let Iraq evolve into a three-region state.
These are the realities. Iraq's Kurds want their own country in what is now northern Iraq, a place Galbraith called "an independent state in all but name." Fortunately for the U.S., this is also the one place in Iraq where U.S. forces are welcome and President Bush is seen as a hero.
The Shiites, who are the majority group in Iraq, have chosen to create an Islamic state in the southern part of Iraq. It has close ties to Iran and wants no part of the U.S. vision of a secular, multi-ethnic state.
The Sunnis, the minority group in Iraq, once ruled the country but now barely control Baghdad. Because Baghdad is a multi-ethnic city, Galbraith said it has become the front line for the ongoing civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis. He said that the murder rate in Baghdad, excluding those killed by car bombs, averages about 1,000 a month.
Galbraith, who spent July and August in Baghdad, said there is "a complete breakdown in law and order" in the city and said that "ethnic cleansing" was underway in the mixed neighborhoods.
In short, the Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites want nothing to do with each other. They've not wanted anything to do with each other for centuries. And no U.S. plan to bring them together will work unless the Bush administration recognizes this.
"It's not a pretty picture for a campaign that was supposed to bring democracy to Iraq and transform the Middle East," Galbraith said.
Dividing Iraq into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni states would not necessarily be a bad idea, Galbraith said, but only if the U.S. shifts its focus from trying to unify Iraq to trying to prevent a civil war.
"A political settlement in Iraq will pave the way for the U.S. to leave," he said.
The new Iraqi Constitution, though imperfect, sets up a government that recognizes the impossibility of bringing together Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. It sets up a loose federation that establishes a Kurdish region in the north and a Shiite region in the south.
The Sunnis, who Galbraith said aren't as in favor of this arrangement as the Kurds and Shiites, say their real objection to the new constitution is "that they no longer rule Iraq. Once they understand that, they'll see that the constitution actually protects them."
It protects every group because there is limited central government. Almost all of the important decisions are left to the individual regions, Galbraith said, including the sharing of the nation's natural resources.
Galbraith believes a full and immediate withdrawal would be impractical. He sees an alternative: redeploying U.S. forces to the Kurdish north, where they would be welcomed and supported by the Kurds and still be close enough to provide security to the rest of Iraq.
He warned about placing too much faith in the Iraqi army. He said of the 115 battalions that exist, nine are Kurdish, 60 are Shiite and the remaining ones are Sunni and none have any loyalty to anyone but their own religious ethnic groups. On top of that, he said at least 40,000 of the stated 80,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army do not exist except as names on a payroll sheet.
"You can't build a national army when there's no loyalty to the nation," he said.
Galbraith said the key to bringing stability to Iraq is for the U.S. to let go of the idea of a unified Iraq, especially since the unified Iraq under Saddam Hussein was "the source of ghastly actions against 80 percent of the Iraqi people."
"There's no need to mourn the passing of a unified Iraq," he said. "If the price of a unified Iraq is another dictator, that's too high a price to pay."
Sadly, Galbraith admitted Thursday, there are too few people in the Bush administration who support this idea. The people who came up with the idea of invading Iraq as part of their plan to transform the Middle East -- "the Illusionists," as Galbraith called them -- still seem to hold sway. There are people in the U.S. military who share Galbraith's ideas, and a few senior staffers in the State Department and the CIA, but no one in Bush's inner circle.
As a result of the Bush administration's general ineptitude regarding every facet of its Iraq policy, U.S. forces may be stuck in Iraq for a very long time in pursuit of policy goals that are unachievable.