Friday, March 26, 2004

Kurds, containment, counterfactuals, etc.

Below is a fragment from an e-mail exchange I had with an older political sociologist (whom I will call X) whose judgment I very much respect. He opposed the Iraq war on strictly "realist" political/strategic grounds, and most of our exchange focused on those issues. However, in one of my messages I mentioned the likelihood that the war had (among other things) the side-effect of preventing another round of genocidal mass murder in Iraqi Kurdistan. He objected that my "Kurdish scenario" was far-fetched. I responded with the message below ... in response to which he conceded:
True, I have assumed that, UN or no UN, Anglo-American containment of Iraq would have continued, and--not that anyone would note or care--I would certainly have supported that, not being a UN-nick. I think it would have happened, myths about the resulting impact on Iraqi infants and babies or not. But on rereading your previous messages, I agree that you did not pile contingency on contingency--it's just that I did not contemplate the first contingency arising, namely the collapse of containment. If that had occurred, then it is fair to see Iraq in terms of the renewed massacre model. People like me would have to accept that as part of the moral cost of not going to war.
This is straightforward, at least.

--Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: Kurds
Date: Fri, 26 Mar 2004 17:01:35 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,
Well, your Kurdish scenario involves one contingency piled on another. Not persuasive.
I guess if one chooses to ignore the historical record of the previous three decades, the well-established intentions and modes of action of the main protagonists, and a realistic analysis of the geopolitical dynamics of this particular case ... then I can see why the argument might appear fanciful and unpersuasive. In the real world, seriously examined, things look different.

Sure, all historical and political judgments involve contingencies and their assessment. But by itself, this is (if you will pardon my saying so) a cheap and easy response. The question is: WHICH of the contingencies I mentioned was far-fetched, improbable, or even unlikely? Name one.

Let me quickly add that this is a purely rhetorical question. When I mentioned my concerns about this "Kurdish scenario" (which I have already laid out in greater detail several times over the past two years [including here]), I didn't do it as an invitation to a long argument, but simply to restate my understanding of the matter. In that spirit, I will simply note that I find your response, with all due respect, not serious.

If one does take the trouble to examine the dynamics of Iraqi history over the past several decades, one notices a pattern of repeated efforts by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime to crush Kurdish resistance by means of increasingly ferocious, brutal, and indiscriminate repression and mass murder, escalating to full-scale genocidal mass murder in the 'Anfal campaign of 1988-1989. (Along with the systematic use of mass rape; ethnic cleansing, deportations, and Arabization in the Kirkuk area; large-scale destruction of villages and population transfers in the Kurdish heartland; etc.) The ONLY thing that prevented another round of genocidal mass murder in Kurdistan after the crushing of the 1991 revolt--thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed, but for Saddam Hussein that was small potatoes--was that the flight of over a million Kurdish refugees over the mountains into Turkey & Iran forced the Coalition powers to create a Kurdish "security zone" in northern Iraq to which the refugees could be induced to return. And the ONLY factor that maintained the "security" of this zone was Saddam Hussein's expectation that another large-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan could offer the pretext for a regime-threatening military response by the US & its allies.

(Some people seem to believe that the Kurds were protected by the "no-flight" zone maintained by the US & Britain. But, by itself, the "no-flight" zone was relatively trivial from Saddam Hussein's point of view, and presented no obstacle to the mass murder of civilians. The "no-flight" zone in the south certainly didn't protect hundreds of thousands of Shiite civilians from being murdered after the 1991 revolt, nor did it prevent Saddam Hussein's campaign of large-scale mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and environmental devastation against the Marsh Arabs in the mid-1990s ... in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 688, which doesn't seem to have frightened him either. What deterred Saddam Hussein from another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan was the prospect of serious, regime-threatening military retaliation.)

Once containment had collapsed and Saddam Hussein no longer had to worry about the danger of a large-scale US-led invasion, he would be free to finish the job that had been interrupted in 1991, ratcheting up the scale of atrocity to a new level. This all strikes me as not just easily predictable but fairly obvious.
It is not lack of sympathy for the Kurds that's involved--US behavior after the first Gulf war and in the 1980s was shameful indeed, and I've long argued that their claim to a state far outdoes that of Palestinians--if one must rank such matters.
Sure. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise in your case. (A lot of other people, however, couldn't care less.)
I don't see why the containment policy could not have been prolonged--it was not unstable and, it turns out, was achieving its ends.
This is indeed a crucial point--on which it appears we disagree fundamentally. The containment system was quite unstable and ultimately unsustainable, and in fact had been falling apart at an increasing rate since the mid-1990s (not surprisingly, since this process was in many ways self-reinforcing), so that by 2000 it was near the point of terminal disintegration. By 2002, it was no longer a question of simply maintaining the whole sanctions-and-containment system, but rather of REconstructing it (which among other things would have entailed pressuring Turkey, Syria, Jordan, & a few other countries to give up oil-smuggling income and, in some cases, subsidies from Iraq which had become economically important to them), tightening it up, and extending it indefinitely.

There were many reasons why the odds of making this work (at considerable and open-ended political, diplomatic, military, and economic cost, by the way) were minimal, but one key reason was that a number of countries with seats on the UN Security Council, particularly France and Russia, had decided at least a decade ago that the sanctions-and-containment system ought to be ended and had been working systematically (and effectively) to undermine it--and there was absolutely no reason to believe that they had changed their minds about this. On the contrary. In a last desperate effort to save the system from imminent collapse (or, at least, to postpone the inevitable), Powell went to the Security Council in 2001 to propose switching to reduced "smart sanctions." Basically, they just laughed at him.

It's true that after the Bush administration began making noises about military action, and started actually sending troops to the Gulf, the governments of France, Russia, etc. changed their tune and suddenly became enthusiastic about containment, inspections, and the rest. But this was just a transparent charade, simply repeating (on a larger scale) the tactics they had repeatedly used to get Saddam Hussein off the hook in the late 1990s. As Saddam Hussein himself helpfully pointed out in one of his rare interviews outside Iraq, with Al Ahram in the summer of 2002, if the actual use of force could just be deflected and delayed long enough by his protectors on the Security Council, the US would become increasingly isolated, political opposition to war would build up all over the world, diplomatic maneuverings would get him off the hook once again, and the threat of invasion would dissolve. In particular, the US couldn't keep an invasion force in the Gulf indefinitely, so it would eventually have to withdraw the troops, at which point the crisis would end in a humiliating defeat for the US (once again).

The actual events, as they unrolled in late 2002-early 2003, made it clear that this was a prescient analysis of the strategy actually being followed by France and Saddam's other backers. Yes, they agreed to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1441 (mostly because US forces were already there in the Gulf, ready to go, and Blair had indicated that the British government would support military action) ... but by early 2003 they had made it abundantly clear that they would never support any serious action to enforce it, no matter what Saddam Hussein did. The idea that, once the crisis had passed and US troops had been withdrawn in whole or part, they would then agree to reconstruct the containment system, tighten it up, and extend it indefinitely (when they had long made it clear that they believed, rightly or wrongly, that their economic and political interests pointed precisely to the termination of containment) is fanciful.

So the option of reconstructing the containment system and extending it indefinitely had, realistically, become unworkable.

Meanwhile, to the extent that the sanctions-&-containment system had "worked," it did so only at the cost of tremendous suffering by Iraqis and tremendous damage to Iraqi society (mostly due to Saddam Hussein's manipulation of sanctions rather than the sanctions themselves, but in practical terms that came to the same thing). Humanitarian considerations aside, maintaining this improvised system entailed great and increasing costs for the US--not just economic costs, but more importantly political, diplomatic, and ideological costs. The widespread (though mythical) belief that American sanctions were starving hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children inflamed public opinion all over the Arab and Islamic worlds, not to mention Europe & American college campuses. The operations of the Oil for-Food program (better described, perhaps, as an oil-for-palaces-and-bribery program) gave Saddam Hussein increasing economic and political leverage to undermine the containment system, and gave a lot of other countries (including but not limited to Iraq's creditors) increasing incentives to collude with him in doing this. The US was increasingly isolated in maintaining the system, and it required constant and ever-increasing investments of political and diplomatic capital just to slow down the slide. Whether or not one believed that the containment policy was a good idea (a complicated question in itself), the fact is that this policy was increasingly unsustainable and, prior to 9/11/2001, was headed toward imminent collapse.

If all this had not been true (if, that is, containment had remained a stable, sustainable, and potentially effective option), then yes, the whole strategic and geopolitical context of the debate over Iraq would have been extremely different. But reality, I'm afraid, was otherwise.
The Kurds in the north were actually somewhat hesitant about a US invasion because it might cost them the autonomy they've achieved.
Well, yes and no. Despite their (well founded) worries on this score and other matters, the Kurds strongly supported an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime. What made some of them a bit hesitant (along with a number of non-Kurdish Iraqis) was precisely the fear that the US would, once again, fail to finish the job. Thus, they would not only suffer from the war itself (they expected, for example, that new chemical-warfare attacks were likely), but then would be left exposed to Saddam Hussein's retaliation. Once they were convinced that the Americans were really serious this time, they supported the war quite passionately ... and a year later, all available evidence indicates that, despite everything, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds continue to think that the war was great.

I think that from their point of view there is no question that this judgment is correct. In this respect, let me once again reiterate a point I have made a number of times before.

ONE of the reasons that, despite some reluctance and much trepidation, I supported military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime was that, in my considered opinion, it was almost certainly the only way to prevent another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan. This would have followed the collapse of containment, which was imminent, letting Saddam Hussein out of his box and giving him back full control of Iraq's oil revenues. One consequence, in the not-too-distant future, would almost certainly have been an attempt by Saddam at some kind of final solution to his Kurdish problem. And it is a very, very safe bet that, under THOSE conditions, no one would have lifted a finger to stop him.

This was not the only reason I supported the war--as I have indicated in the past, I thought there was a surplus of good reasons--but I have to admit that this one was emotionally significant for me, since I've worried about the playing-out of this particular scenario ever since the mid-1990s, when he handwriting on the wall was becoming pretty clear.

(Perhaps I get too upset and emotional about the genocidal mass murder of ethnic minorities, but it's a persistent quirk of mine.)

To the best of my knowledge, no country or coalition of countries has ever been willing to fight a major war (as opposed to a fairly risk-free low-casualty military or police operation, as in East Timor) ONLY or even PRIMARILY to stop or prevent genocidal mass murder. (Am I wrong?) In all cases where a serious invasion has produced this result (e.g., India in East Bengal, Tanzania in Uganda, Vietnam in Cambodia), it has always been a by-product of a war launched primarily for OTHER reasons. So it was in this case ... and so it will continue to be, I suspect, until there is a fairly massive change in the international political order (for which we should not hold our breath).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub