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Friday, September 27, 2002


Kurds and ways

Christopher Hitchens has, since 9/11, rather fancied himself the Don Quixote of the Left, jousting with the anti-war contingent, rallying the troops around feminism, secularism, and democracy. Well, beyond the posturing natural to Hitchens, there is something to his perception of the anti-war left -- you don't have to look far before you find rather stupid analogies between, say, Saddam Hussein's use of nerve gas and lynchings in the U.S. South. The stupidity resides in the fact that there were mechanisms in the state to operate against the lynching spree -- and eventually, creakily, did. Genocide past neither justifies genocide present nor, necessarily, bars a nation from acting militarily. One can take a stand against any nation acting militarily at all, or one can take a stand against particular military actions, but the dumbest of all stands, LI thinks, is that which requires complete purity of nationhood (perhaps for a thousand years) before a nation is allowed to engage another. Until then, one supposes, the military force has to be content with sharpening knives and shining its buttons. Hitchens, criticizing such politics, is in good company. Marx saw how necessary the Napoleonic wars were in carrying the ideals of the French revolution across Europe, and lamented that Germany was never really conquered by the French. However, the modified lefty point seems to me quite plausible: if the actions of a nation have been morally stained in the recent past (say, the moral stain of selling the ingredients for chemical weapons, or condoning their use - that's pretty staining) in regard to a particular other nation, then it is quite right to doubt whether the former nation is morally qualified to proclaim itself justified in intervening in the affairs of the latter nation. Or, to speak with less cotton in my mouth, Iraqis have pretty good reasons to think that they are going to be manipulated, killed, and otherwise displaced for no good end, except, perhaps, the enrichment of some oil companies and the pleasure their deaths will bring to Ariel (or is it Caliban?) Sharon.

LI has been on the side of using military force against Al Qaeda. But count LI in the peace camp as far as Iraq goes. Hitchens has two columns in the nation in which he goes into the Kurdish side of the upcoming war. We want to comment at length about one of those columns -- Appointment in Samarra -- so we aren't going to quote it, as is usually our custom. To make sense of the three points that follow, probably you should go to the Hitchens column first. And now, without further ado:

Questions for Hitchens!

1. The 'devolved" Kurdish state. Devolution might work with Scotland, a region that has existed for three hundred years within the greater framework of British law and statehood, but it is hard to understand what it would mean for the Kurds.

If, indeed, we accept that the Kurds, like the Palestinians, deserve some kind of state, we have to be careful not to surrender to romantic illusions either about the means that might make this possible or the state that might result. Hitchens ignores the real political maneuvering in Northern Iraq during the last ten years. If he were more honest, he would at least allude to such evidences of Kurdish war-lordism as Masoud Barzani
's KDP Alliance with Saddam Hussein in 1996, which was aimed at destroying his Kurdish opponent, the PUK. We also know that Kurdish militias, far from buttressing the liberal dream of a secular, democratic state, have shown, in the past ten years, a mix of tendencies. One pattern is to revert to ideologies of Islamic extremism, or to act in ways that are pure banditry. Against this one can set the current governance of Northern Iraq, which by all accounts is generally one of tolerance. Hitchens can wish away recent history by selectively attending to liberal Kurdish groups, but such a move is fatal to the intelligent analysis of the Kurdish situation. Does Hitchens really think that those Islamicist factions in Northern Iraq are somehow going to vanish if Hussein is attacked? Remember, these factions are basically aligned with the kind of state the Taliban inaugurated - the kind of state Hitchens has attacked as fascist.
2. This brings up our second question. As liberal Americans, we of course would like to see a strong secular state in Northern Iraq, one that would possess structures for the peaceful transfer of power among different factions; one that would respect the human rights of minorities; and one that would contrive barriers to the wholesale looting of national wealth, which is as endemic to warlord prone areas of the world as it is to CEO-centric corporations. Now, by an accident, a safe haven has been carved out in Northern Iraq where these institutions, although often battered, seem to be growing. Would a war that deposed Saddam Hussein really be to the advantage of the growth of this type of state? I would suggest that the best course is to continue to keep the pressure on Hussein, to disarm him, to inspect him, to encourage popular revolt against him - but not to crush him through military force. Hitchens might say that retaining Saddam Hussein means, every day, imprisoning the people of Iraq. But all means of liberation aren't equal. Given the weakness of Hussein's forces, Northern Iraq is in no immediate danger of falling once again to the Republican Guard. It acts as a strong attractor, a model, for Iraqi discontent. Outside intelligence has been noticeably poor at predicting the downfall of dictators. I'd think the internal collapse of Hussein's regime is a much better goal to aim for. Frankly, there is no reason to think that the Americans won't prop up a military man to rule as a satrap in conquered Iraq. They've not only done this before: in Pakistan, they are colluding at it right now.

3. Finally, I find the implied dismissal of Turkish interest both unfair and historically misplaced. The safe haven in North Iraq exists by courtesy of the use of Turkish air strips, and was suggested by the Turkish government itself, in 1993, in response to the wave of Kurdish refugees. While it is true that the Turkish government's war against the PKK, the Kurdish guerilla group, was waged with maximum brutality, it is also true that the PKK responded in kind. It is also true that the PKK's ideology, a mixture of Mao and Mohammed, was a charlatan politics; that it evolved into a typical mix of twentieth century crime and brute political force, accruing money through trading drugs and arms, and wiping out any sign of Kurdish opposition; and that it never received the support of even a substantial minority of Turkish Kurds. It is a mistake to think that the situation in Turkey is anything like the situation in Iraq. There are billionaire Turkish Kurds; there are Kurdish presses in Istanbul; there is a high mix of Kurds in the Turkish military. The question of discrimination, which is a valid issue in Turkey, shouldn't be confused with the issue of separation. Like the Mayan farmers in Chiapas, Kurds might be oppressed by discriminations in the power structure in existence right now, but their grievances are peacefully resolvable, with no injury to the state of Turkey as a whole.

Naturally, Turkey can't countenance a hostile Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. Whether Kurdish factions can resist the dubious romantic satisfaction of encouraging violence in Turkey should definitely be a condition for further steps towards Kurdish autonomy (of whatever kind) in Northern Iraq. Far better to preserve the present, fragile situation, in which non-violent organizations can form, than to hope that peace arise out of the chaos of war.

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