Friday, January 05, 2007

Time to revive "Kurd Sellout Watch" ?

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, Timothy Noah of Slate ran a useful and informative feature for a while that he called Kurd Sellout Watch. Given the probable directions that US policy discussions about Iraq may take in the next year, now may be a good time for him to revive it.

=> There have been a number of signs lately that arguments for selling out the Iraqi Kurds in the name of foreign-policy "realism" are likely to get more prominent. These include, most obviously, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which have produced some justified alarm among Iraqi Kurds.

Another possible straw in the wind is a recent item by Gregory Djerejian in his generally intelligent and perceptive blog, Belgravia Watch. Djerejian was responding, in part, to a post on January 2 by Andrew Sullivan (The Choice) in which Sullivan tried to think through the rather discouraging range of options now open to the US in Iraq. Sullivan's prognosis was pessimistic, as most people's are these days. He concluded that the US might well have to abandon the Arab part of Iraq, even if the likely outcome would be intensified civil war, accompanied by "genocide and ethnic cleansing on a hideously cruel scale" and the possibility of unleashing "a regional sectarian war with unknowable consequences."

Sullivan added--correctly, in my view--that even if Arab Iraq does collapse into chaos, the US should not abandon the one part of Iraq that has so far been a relative success story and that also remains a genuine US ally, namely Iraqi Kurdistan. (For one overview see Kurdistan: Birth of a Nation? by the exceptionally knowledgeable British journalist Patrick Cockburn.) It seems to me that considerations of both US national interest and elementary moral decency point clearly in that direction. Sullivan summed it up this way:
But my view right now is that we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities.
Djerejian's response to these remarks, in US Troops in Kurdistan, was to go ballistic--which is not his usual style. Some of the objections he raised to the idea of a continuing US-Kurdish alliance are potentially plausible and worth discussing calmly and soberly. But what struck me was that Djerejian tried to justify them in part by launching into a one-sidedly anti-Kurdish polemic that was surprisingly overheated and inaccurate. Some of the themes tossed out by Djerejian are likely to become standard talking-points to help rationalize a US sellout of Iraqi Kurdistan, so they're worth noticing and debunking in advance.

What follows is an open letter to Djerejian about a few of these issues.

--Jeff Weintraub

Dear Gregory Djerejian,

Regarding your discussion of US Troops in Kurdistan, including your scoffing dismissal of Andrew Sullivan's mention of a "fledgling democracy" in Iraqi Kurdistan....

Some of your points there make sense, and others certainly merit consideration. But it seems to me that the overstated and sometimes careless ways in which you frame them makes your overall discussion surprisingly tendentious and misleading.

=> I agree that a US-Kurdish alliance & the stationing of US troops in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the wake of a possible implosion of Arab Iraq, is certainly "no panacea" (though I'm not sure anyone has described it in those terms), and I also agree that the Turks wouldn't like it one bit.

Having said that, I am taken aback by the tone of your whole discussion, which is one-sidedly anti-Kurdish to a puzzling and quite unjustified degree. For example, you say:
Meantime, and frankly, is Kurdistan really a "fledgling democracy", as Andrew writes? I suspect one of the great under-reported stories of this war is all the reverse Arabization going on up in the North of the country. It's not all peachy clean up there, truth be told, and Kirkuk of course remains a mega tinderbox. It's likely about as "fledgling" a democracy as the rest of Iraq, all told, albeit of course enjoying less endemically poor security conditions.
No, everything is not all peachy keen up there. And Kirkuk does remain a tinderbox (partly because a lot of groups want the oil in the region, and partly because the Kurds--fairly reasonably--want to allow some of the local Kurdish population forced out in Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaigns to return home). Nor does Iraqi Kurdistan count as a stable democratic polity with a solid rule of law if we apply the standards of, say, Scandinavia.

On the other hand, it's also useful to keep a sense of proportion. Judged by the standards of the region in which it's located--i.e., the Middle East, not Scandinavia--and keeping in mind the material and human devastation that Iraqi Kurdistan has suffered over the past decades, it has so far turned out to be a surprising success story, which does not resemble "the rest of Iraq" (i.e., Arab Iraq) in the slightest. All serious observers agree that, by regional standards, Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most stable, well run, politically open, secular, democratizing, and generally decent societies in the area. The leadership of the KDP and PUK have--on the whole, and under the circumstances--proved themselves to be exceptionally mature, constructive, and politically sophisticated.

Perhaps you think matters in Iraqi Kurdistan are actually a lot worse than that, and that such analyses of Iraqi Kurdistan by people like Patrick Cockburn and David Hirst (who are not exactly neo-conservative or Bushite propagandists) are too rosy. Fine (though it would take more than a passing reference to "reverse Arabization" to support such a position). But even so, to put Iraqi Kurdistan on the same level as the rest of Iraq in terms of being a "fledgling democracy" is simply absurd. Sure, it has problems and faults, by why exaggerate?
The reality is that the Kurds (who were petrified by the ISG report, which calls for more equitable sharing of oil revenue, and less federalism than Gelb-Biden)--must swallow painful concessions, or the risk of Turkey militarily intervening will likely become at least as high (probably higher) than Saudi and Iranian cross-border military meddling on behalf of their Sunni and Shi'a, respectively, proxies.
Well, yes, the Kurds are certainly "petrified" by the ISG report. But to say that this is because Baker & Co. call for "more equitable" policies is a rather tendentious (and uncritically Arabist) way to put it. The Kurds are worried by the ISG because they read it as a blueprint for the US to sell them out in the name of so-called "realism"--something with which they have some previous experience.

Frankly, I believe that a people who have experienced repeated bouts of savage repression and mass murder--escalating to genocide--inflicted by regimes in Baghdad, as well as repeated betrayals by outside powers which have exposed them to these atrocities, might have understandable reasons for feeling a little anxious about a report that treats their concerns as inconsequential. But be that as it may ...

If you and other people want to conclude that US national interest may require sacrificing Kurdish interests for the sake of other agendas, then that's a potentially respectable argument. But that's an argument that can be made honestly, with a clearly stated recognition that what is being recommended will, in fact, require sacrificing what the Iraqi Kurds regard as some of their vital interests (and, for what it's worth, what they regard as their legitimate interests). Such is life, perhaps. There's no need to find excuses for such a policy by adding a slanted anti-Kurdish account of the facts to in order to imply that the Kurds somehow deserve to be sold out by the US.

I doubt that this is what you intended to do, since that's not usually your style. But I'm afraid that's what came across in your discussion.

=> As for Brent Scowcroft's op-ed about Iraq in Thursday's New York Times ...
An excellent read from Scowcroft here. Remember, he called all this correctly initially. Let's now take very seriously the advice of those who were on the right side of this debacle, not the wrong one, no?
Well, it's true that Scowcroft and other Bush I types like him may have correctly foreseen some of the political and strategic blunders of the Bush II gang in its Iraq adventure. But let's also not forget that Scowcroft & Bush I and the rest played a big role in creating the whole context that led up to the 2003 Iraq war by making a different set of political and strategic blunders at the end of the 1991 Iraq war and afterwards. The result was that that tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein in putting down the national rebellion that could have overthrown his regime 15 years ago--which might possibly have helped to poison the political outlook of Iraq's Shiites, don't you think?--and by the end of the 1990s the whole "containment" system cobbled together in the aftermath of this catastrophe had become unsustainable and was rapidly unraveling, while Iraqi civilians and the fabric of Iraqi society had been devastated in the meantime, so there were no good choices available. If that's the kind of "realism" you want to us to re-embrace, count me out. But all that would require a longer discussion.

What I find more immediately interesting about Scowcroft's op-ed is that he (and presumably others in the Bush I group he represents) is weighing in very strongly against the main thrust of the ISG Report's recommendations--which is to say, the recommendations of the Bush family consigliere James Baker. This suggests that in the upcoming debates over what do to about the mess that the Bush II gang have created, the "realist" (and Arabist) camp are not all going to be pulling in the same direction.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Update - January 14, 2007: Greg Djerejian responded, rather graciously, with a useful clarification and modulation of his position.
Jeff Weintraub is right to write that my tone was off in this earlier post. It's just that I'm tired of maximalist agendas, whether on the Potomac, in Kurdistan, in Ankara, in Baghdad, in Teheran, and on and on. Thus the frustration. Words like "petrified" and such were inappropriate, however, in that they sounded somewhat heartless and/or overly cavalier. Apologies. This said, do note I still don't think a large-scale basing of U.S. troops in Kurdistan, unless perhaps coordinated in exacting detail with the Turks (and simultaneously in a manner that doesn't alienate Talabani and Barzani, quite a tall order), would end up proving sound policy.
I still think it would probably be a good idea to revive the "Kurd Sellout Watch" ... but after this clarification of his position, it would no longer be appropriate to include Djerejian as an illustration.

In all honesty, though, I feel compelled to add that I don't think the policies actually pursued by the Kurdish leadership so far can really be described as "maximalist." On the contrary, from the start they have acted on the basis of a prudent realization that they can't get what they and the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds really want, which is independence, so they have tried to strike constructive compromises. In that respect, they and Greg Djerejian agree that a maximalist agenda should be ruled out. The real question is where those compromises can and should be struck, and these are matters open to reasonable disagreement (as distinct from the kind of crude dismissal of Kurdish interests and concerns epitomized by the Baker/Hamilton report).

And if Arab Iraq does eventually implode and the whole country comes apart at the seams, then in figuring out what to do next the concerns voiced by Djerejian would certainly need to be taken very seriously, whether or not one agrees entirely with his assessments of what this would imply. But those matters can be left to another discussion.