In a June 27 article on “Saving Iraq,” Robert Dreyfuss argues that it is “a bridge too far” to conclude, as I do, that the way things are going, “the only choices for Iraq now are how, and how violently, it will break up.” He maintains that this is throwing up one’s hands and saying that “there is no hope for Iraq.” That is a strange way to characterize facing reality. It is like a passenger on the Titanic saying that the ship may still be able to float after it hits the iceberg, so everyone should stay on board. Hoping for the best does not make it so.

Few challenge the fact that Iraq is disintegrating violently. While there may be pockets of improvement from the “surge,” they are transitory achievements that are about four years too late. We do not have enough US or Iraqi troops capable of holding ground and building on these inroads. Nor have they diminished the level of violence in the country as a whole, encouraged reconciliation, limited militia activity or stopped the spate of vengeance killings that are occurring every day.

The breakup of the country is occurring, with ordinary Iraqis fleeing in fear of the violence. Two million refugees and 1.7 million internally displaced people have already left their homes. Roughly 50,000 to 100,000 more are moving each month to safety in other countries or to homogenous ethno-religious communities. As a recent report from the Brookings Institution put it, “The impetus for ethno-sectarian flight comes from the ethno-sectarian nature of the killing, rather than armed conflict per se…. [Iraqis] are seeking security…where militias of their own group tend to be in control.” Even the United States is unintentionally abetting the process in an attempt to quell the killing. US troops are creating “gated communities” in many Baghdad neighborhoods and erecting a three-mile wall to discourage intercommunal violence.

Dreyfuss exhibits two characteristics typical of US foreign policy analysts in denying the impact of these trends. The first is an unwillingness to face up to facts on the ground if they contradict preconceived ideas of what they think “should” be the right outcome–in this case, a multiethnic democratic society. As noble as this goal is, it is grasping for straws to believe that it is achievable in the chaos that reigns in Iraq today. When internal war descends into systematic vengeance-seeking violence against civilians, such policies can worsen the conflict by hardening group identities and fostering faster fragmentation.

A second characteristic of US foreign policy analysts is the tendency to “pick winners” who they believe are imbued with the power to miraculously save the situation. There is a school of thought that holds that leaders matter more than underlying social forces in critical transitions or crises. In truth, of course, both are important. But where exemplary leaders are not available, social forces take over. It is fanciful to think that we can find in Iraq the kind of nonviolent bridge-building figures of integrity, such as Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, who can turn the situation around.

Dreyfuss is trying to pick winners nonetheless. He trumpets a “nascent bloc of Iraqi nationalists who, against all odds, are working to put together a pan-Iraq coalition that would topple the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki” [italics mine]. Without citing evidence, he asserts that “outside Parliament the nationalists represent an overwhelming majority of rank- and-file Iraqis.” Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is the titular leader of this “emerging nationalist coalition” that could “oust Maliki,” although Dreyfuss does not spell out how this would occur. He warns, nonetheless, that this is “probably Iraq’s last chance to avoid civil war, collapse and fragmentation.”

There are three problems with this scenario. It is too late, it inflates the influence of the bloc and its leader, and it could strike the fatal blow that would push the country into total collapse.

Besides, we have already tried to pick winners in Iraq. The first time was when we picked Ahmad Chalabi, who had aspired to lead Iraq after he convinced the United States that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that our liberation of the country would be widely welcomed. We all know what that produced. The second time was when we backed Iyad Allawi as prime minister in a short-lived term that failed to reduce the violence or advance political reconciliation. There is no reason to believe that he could do any better the second time around. Moreover, the Iraqi National List holds only 13 percent of the ministerial posts and 11 percent of the seats in Parliament; it garnered only 14 percent of the votes in the most recent parliamentary elections.

The third time we tried picking winners was when National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley contemplated a plan to replace Maliki in a memo that was leaked to the New York Times in November 2006. Cooler heads in the Bush Administration correctly recognized that this might result in the collapse of the central government entirely. Anyone picked by the United States to replace Maliki will automatically be deemed as illegitimate. Lacking any other new ideas, President Bush restated his full support of Maliki, despite Maliki’s failure to make progress on the benchmarks Bush said were required.

No amount of reshuffling the deck will save a disintegrating Iraq. We should put aside preconceived notions about preferred outcomes, such as a multinational democracy, and accept more workable if less desirable outcomes, such as partitioning the country into three states. This at least holds the potential to reduce the violence by offering a positive vision of how Iraqis can live side by side, if not together. Neither the Bush Administration nor the Baker-Hamilton recommendations offer such a vision. The former keeps trying to stay the course, while the latter formulated a way for the United States to get out, irrespective of what follows in the wake of our departure.

This is understandable. Domestic pressure for US withdrawal is coming to a head and the window of opportunity for leaving something behind that could be constructive is narrowing fast. The question is: Can we draw down the US military presence and simultaneously nurture a new political order that will bring stability?

It may well be too late, but there is one path worth exploring. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed partition shortly after the war began. Senator Joe Biden proposed a soft partition about a year ago. The Fund for Peace advocated a “managed partition” last year. Whatever we call it, separating the main ethnic-religious groups is now being considered seriously in the debate over the merits of “hard” (complete sovereignty for three states) versus “soft” (loose confederation) partition. What is important is that a carefully “managed partition” could reduce the ethno-sectarian violence and allow a reduction in the presence of foreign troops.

One version of a managed partition is a European-style “Union of Iraqi States” whose three component parts would have political independence but be linked economically, like the European Union. This would ensure that none of the major ethnic-religious groups would be dominated by any other, as each would have its own government and security forces. However, if they are linked in a larger economic entity, they will enjoy free trade and commerce and an attractive environment for international investment, and will endorse common principles such as protection of minority rights and free movement of labor and capital. The critical question of sharing oil revenues that is currently dividing the country could be resolved by an equitable formula negotiated with, and enforced by, the international community that would provide each state with a guaranteed share of the income based on criteria used in other oil-producing states such as need, population and derivation.

Iraq’s neighbors and other international stakeholders would have to be part of the bargain, guaranteeing financial support, border security, military nonaggression pacts (including preventing rebel activity) and diplomatic recognition. They, too, could benefit from this arrangement.

Iran would benefit because Iraq could never again be able to wage war against it. Turkey would benefit by getting guarantees from the international community to stop PKK infiltration. Jordan and Syria would benefit by being able to return Iraqi refugees flooding into their countries. And the United States and its allies would benefit by bringing their troops home without leaving chaos, civil war and regional disorder behind.

The losers would be the foreign terrorists, whose presence would no longer be necessary, a feature that would turn the populace against them. The rationale for fighting would likewise dry up for internal insurgents, with the occupation ending and self-rule on the horizon. Not all players are likely to jump on board, at least not at first. And there would be bitter-enders who would fight to the finish. But such forces would be marginalized as the majority of the local population grasps for a light at the end of the tunnel.

The three states would each be very different. We might not like all the outcomes. However, they would not be fighting each other, providing the seedbed for terrorist training, destabilizing the region, creating horrific violence every day or bleeding our forces on their battlefields. Indeed, if the recent shift of the Sunni tribal chiefs against Al Qaeda is real, then an independent Sunni-dominated state would probably deprive foreign terrorists of a base in their nascent state. Neither Kurdistan in the north nor a supra-Shiite state in the south would be hospitable havens. Managed partition could be a real setback for Al Qaeda.

Will there be difficult problems? Of course. But they would not be more complex than what Iraq and the region will confront with violent disintegration or the sudden departure of US troops, as US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari recently warned.

Will it be easy? Not by a long shot. Such transitions never are. Although the negotiated partition of a state into separate entities is never ideal, it recently ended two wars. More than a decade ago, the international community helped to end the bloodiest war on the European continent since World War II by managing the partition of Bosnia into three separate entities with revenue- and power-sharing arrangements. Today that country remains at peace and is currently in negotiations to join the European Union, an outcome not thought imaginable at the end of the war in 1996. A managed partition was also negotiated to end Africa’s longest war in southern Sudan, with the southern region due to vote on independence in a 2011 referendum. If managed partition was successful in the Balkans and Eastern Africa, why not in Iraq?

Would it result in more violence? Probably no more than what Iraq is experiencing now or will likely experience in the future if current trends continue. Handled right, a managed partition would result in a sharp drop in violence.

How could such a solution be implemented? Henry Kissinger provided a framework in a recent piece for the Washington Post. Although he does not endorse partition outright, he contemplates it as a possible result, asserting that the internal parties that have been having blood feuds for centuries “need the buttress of a diplomatic process that could provide international support for carrying out any internal agreements reached or to contain conflict if the internal parties cannot agree and Iraq breaks up.”

Kissinger proposes a three-tiered international effort that includes intensified negotiations among the Iraqi parties, a regional forum and a broader conference to establish the peacekeeping and verification dimensions for the “eventual participation of friendly countries with a big stake in the outcome.” The foreign ministers’ conference that met recently at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, and that will meet again in Istanbul at a date to be determined could kick off the multilateral diplomacy that Kissinger advocates, with managed partition as one of the options put on the table. Perhaps it would have the effect of driving internal parties to compromise more to avoid partition. But if not, then this and other versions of new political order should be considered.

Ultimately, of course, it is up to the Iraqis to decide the fate of their nation. We can ease that choice by mounting a multilateral diplomatic offensive based on fresh ideas. Rather than pick winners, stay the course or pull out–these being the only three options now being considered–managed partition could salvage something from this long ordeal. It could leave us with some influence in the area, contain terrorism, allow us to start bringing our troops home in a responsible way, avert a bloodbath in the wake of troop withdrawal and shift our role from war-fighting to state-building.

However, it would take strong and committed US diplomatic leadership to make this happen. Is the Bush Administration up to the task of shifting strategy at this late date? Let’s hope so. If not, then, as I said earlier, the way things are going, the only choices left for Iraq are how, and how violently, it will break up.