Whenever I try to chart a course between the “Iraq would have been great if we’d just had smarter people in charge of the occupation” and the “Arabs can’t handle democracy” school of thought, I tend to come back to things like this — the great difficult [sic] Belgians have in creating a viable, legitimate binational democratic state. Or think of the Canadians. Or the endless problems in Spain with the Basques. It’s genuinely difficult to work these kinds of things out. And then there’s the former Czechoslovakia where it couldn’t be worked out, or else Northern Ireland where it also couldn’t be worked out but where there proved to be no adequate line of partition. ~Matt Yglesias

Looked at another way, the problem in all of these cases isn’t the creation of a viable, legitimate binational state.  Even Czechoslovakia functioned as some kind of viable, legitimate binational (or actually trinational before they kicked the Germans out) state for approximately eighty years until the local power bosses on either side of the Slovakian border decided that it would be easier and/or more advantageous to them politically to hive off the Slovaks into their own state.  This suited the Slovak nationalists and the Czech leadership, which was just as glad to have that much less competition for running Bohemia and Moravia.  As many Czechs and Slovaks will tell you even now, the “velvet divorce” was something that many people on both sides of the border did not want.  Czechoslovakia may have been some arbitrarily made-up country, but it was their arbitrarily made-up country and it was the only one they had known.  Suddenly friends and relatives became citizens of a foreign country.  As someone who visited the newly independent Slovakia in 1993, I can testify to the sort of absurd “nation-building” pettiness that accompanied this process, as our perfectly good Czech koruna bills had to be exchanged for virtually indistinguishable Slovak koruna bills, as if the little stamp on the Slovak money made any real difference.  

The trouble in these cases arises when the political class tries to maintain a binational state in such a way that appears to one party of the union to unduly privilege the interests of the other party.  To many Flemings, the Belgian state appears to be a mechanism to rob them to support Wallonia (which, for the most part, seems to be true).  You then combine this with a growing sense of alienation and nationalism of the party that feels as if it is being ignored or abused, and you suddenly have a very difficult situation.  In Belgium, matters have reached such a boiling point because, among other things, Flemish nationalists feel that they subsidise the rest of the country and they think they do not have sufficient representation at the federal level.  It has not helped that the consensus parties have banned one Flemish nationalist party and have worked assiduously to contain Flemish nationalist political power.  This has only helped to encourage the view that Belgian “democracy” means having the ‘right’ elections results and enacting the ‘right’ policies rather than having any kind of self-determination or popular government.

What do almost all of these places have in common?  They are almost all the legacies of conquest/colonialism or the products of international congresses that drew fairly arbitrary lines on maps to suit Great Power vendettas and interests.  Of these, the most “manageable” have been those arrangements where there has been significant decentralisation to meet demands for regional or provincial autonomy.  The more accurate comparison for Iraq, however, is not with Spain or Canada or even Belgium, which have a relative wealth of history as united countries compared to Iraq, but rather with Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, which were created in the same period as part of the same foolish Allied empire-carving process and which dissolved into their constituent parts (though Yugoslavia’s dissolution had a good deal of help from outside meddlers).  Iraq seems bound for the same fate, if only because the local power bosses in different parts of Iraq are going to become interested in partition for the same reasons their counterparts in Czechoslovakia were: it allows them to be bigger fish in the necessarily smaller ponds.