(seventh in series)

The form of our government, which gives every man, that has leisure, or curiosity, or vanity, the right of inquiring into the propriety of publick measures, and, by consequence, obliges those who are intrusted with the administration of national affairs, to give an account of their conduct to almost every man who demands it, may be reasonably imagined to have occasioned innumerable pamphlets, which would never have appeared under arbitrary governments, where every man lulls himself in
indolence under calamities, of which he cannot promote the redress, or thinks it prudent to conceal the uneasiness, of which he cannot complain without danger. – Samuel Johnson

2. The Kurds

Pity the peoples that encountered a superpower during the Cold War. From the Hmong to the Misquito, such encounters resulted in the socially dissolving shock of gung ho activists organizing military activity at the expense of undermining tradition; a phase of activity usually ending in some rout that, for realpolitik reasons, had to be either countenanced or suppressed by the host power. It was one thing for nineteenth century Victorians to wipe out the Tasmanians; twentieth century Americans, armed with liberal ideals, did quite as much trying to wipe out Communism, an ideology premised on abolishing a capitalism that was little more than a dream to the tribe; while twentieth century communists, with the gospel of Marx, and its scorn for rural idiocy, to support them, could operate on a scale of inhumanity that would have made Pizzaro blush.

Among these unfortunates, the Kurds have figured largely in the American liberal conscience. Among Kissinger’s most brutal ideas was to use the Kurds as a shock force against what he considered the Soviet proxy in the Middle East – Iraq. In agreement with the Shah of Iran, between 72 and 75 a rebellion by Mustafa Barzani was covertly backed against Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. One of the ironies of the situation was, of course, that our two co-conspirators of the time, Israel and Iran, had no use or sympathy themselves for the Kurds. Barzani had actually wrung concessions from Saddam’s government for the Kurds that far outdid what was allowed to Iranian or Turkish Kurds. In 1975, the Shah made peace with Saddam, the price of which was paid by waves of massacre in Northern Iraq. The oppression increased during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, but the news of Kurds being gassed did not penetrate the policy being designed by the Reagan administration, which allowed Saddam’s regime billions in credits and shared intelligence with Saddam’s military. There’s an interesting and in some way counter-argument to the orthodox version of this made here, by the way. And Kissinger’s defense is excerpted here.

Peter Galbraith (who LI has interviewed, and who came across as an immensely likeable man), was an investigator for the Senate who went to Northern Iraq in the late eighties, saw the devastation being visited upon the Kurds, and became, in that moment, the Kurd’s great advocate in Washington. He wrote the first bill that sanctioned Iraq – only to see it shot down by the Reagan administration. The liberal hawks last year were surely moved, in great part, by the memory of Saddam’s genocide of the Kurds, and that narrative was moved and originally shaped in D.C. by Galbraith.

However, the oppression of the Kurds shouldn’t obscure the salient fact, in the history of Northern Iraq, that the struggle for Kurdish independence has never been a struggle for democracy. Since liberals like their romantic national struggles to be all of a piece, this fact has tended to get lost in the shuffle, and it remains irretrievable to a media that suffers, when it comes to foreign parts, from a sad case of chronic short term memory loss. Galbraith’s NYRB article about getting out of Iraq, which has caused a large stir, weaves about certain lacuna with a master laceworker’s skill. To make this point, Galbraith wittingly skips over the history of Northern Iraq in the 90s. Let’s quote, for the sake of abridgement, two grafs:

‘The Kurds, however, are well organized. They have an elected parliament and two regional governments, their own court system, and a 100,000 strong military force, known as the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga, whose members were principal American allies in the 2003 war, are better armed, better trained, and more disciplined than the minuscule Iraqi army the United States is now trying to reconstitute.”

“Since 1991, Kurdistan has been de facto independent and most Iraqi Kurds see this period as a golden era of democratic self-government and economic progress. In 1992 Kurdistan had the only democratic elections in the history of Iraq, when voters chose members of a newly created Kurdistan National Assembly. During the last twelve years the Kurdistan Regional Government built three thousand schools (as compared to one thousand in the region in 1991), opened two universities, and permitted a free press; there are now scores of Kurdish-language publications, radio stations, and television stations. For the older generation, Iraq is a bad memory, while a younger generation, which largely does not speak Arabic, has no sense of being Iraqi.”

Galbraith’s method here is to select certain facts, and cast others into the shadows. For instance, how is it that the same golden era of democratic self-government is also the era in which, according to every newspaper account from 1995 and 1996, the Kurds experienced a civil war? Perhaps that war, in fact, has something to do with the mysterious mention of two “regional governments.” The uninstructed reader conjures up visions of Texas and Louisiana – just two friendly states – instead of a touchy concord between two armed parties, loyal to two warlords.

Galbraith’s idea is that Iraq should survive as a very loose confederation, giving a lot of autonomy to the three major regions. This might be a good idea. However, its extension, that “we” should ‘divide” Iraq into three separate nations to prevent civil war, is wholly pernicious. First, on the grounds of logic. If civil war were preventable by the division of one country into an undetermined number of countries, why, civil war would never happen. This is much like saying we should prevent ‘4” by adding 2 + 2.

Second, on the grounds of the we – what we are we talking about, and what authority does this ‘we’ have? It is definitely the conqueror’s we that is being bandied about here.

Because the Kurds have born an insupportable amount of oppression from governments based in Baghdad, I could understand the Kurdish desire for independence. But it is impossible to envision that desire becoming real without a war. The worst result of CPA rule may be this: building the conditions for a long and bloody civil war, from insisting on provisions in the constitution that seem designed to block Iraq from operating as a sovereign nation -- a constitution that reminds one of one of those legendarily insidious microsoft codes, where the company can use its knowledge to peek into what its users are doing, with the company here being the U.S.A.-- to allowing the disproportion in armed forces to which Galbraith alludes.

Next post: the Shiites.


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