A Word for the Kurds

Posted: Jul 11, 2014 6:45 PM
A Word for the Kurds
It's an old saying: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. In spades. The latest illustration of that adage is provided by our own vice president, for Joe Biden is finally getting his wish. He made it back in 2006, another time when Iraq was falling apart in a swirl of blood and explosions. He was Sen. Biden back then but already fancied himself some kind of foreign-policy guru, and his response to Iraq's collapse that year was simplicity itself: Just go ahead and let it fall apart -- one part for each of its ethnic/religious components: Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds. The old Iraq would be balkanized, all would get what they wanted, and peace would reign! Problem solved.

Now, headline after headline, we're seeing just how the Biden Plan would have played out as Iraq slides into the same kind of bloody chaos that was rampant in 2006 -- before a president and commander-in-chief named George W. Bush woke up, fired his secretary of defense, and got himself a general with a new and this time effective strategy.

That president's 180-degree turnabout saved the day -- and Iraq. The new commander in the field would be David Petraeus, who had pretty much written the book on what's called counterinsurgency warfare, and his strategy was nicknamed The Surge. It proved surprisingly successful in a surprisingly short time -- with a surprising minimum of American casualties. The result: Iraq held together. Till now.

But this new president and nominal commander-in-chief decided to abandon Iraq by 2011, and abandoned it was -- right on schedule. And right on schedule it's now fallen apart. Although it might have taken only a modest American force to keep it together and stabilized. The same kind of American force -- it's called a deterrent -- that has stood guard in Europe and on the Korean peninsula for years, for decades.

Anyone who knew anything about the Middle East, even a little, could have foreseen what leaving the Iraqis to their own deeply divisive devices would lead to: bloody chaos. Which is just where it now has led.

Welcome to Obamaland, where a president's fondest dreams can come true -- and be revealed as cruel illusions.

Barack Obama seems to assume that the world is the simple place he wants it to be, and not as it sadly is -- full of treacherous dangers that defy simple "solutions." His has been the familiar isolationist dream and lure: All that America has to do is withdraw from the world, and we'll live happily forever after. That's not a foreign policy; it's a fairy tale. And one that Americans have regularly paid a high price for. At least since the isolationist Thirties led predictably enough to the ferocious Forties and the greatest war in history.

Now, five years into Barack Obama's reset of American foreign policy, his dream world has turned into a nightmare scenario -- see Ukraine and what has happened in Crimea, and is still happening in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and ... anywhere else this president has chosen to ignore. A world without American involvement, it turns out, is a world without peace.

The whole Arab Spring, once so full of bright hope, has shriveled and turned into darkest winter. At this juncture in the creation of Barack Obama's not so brave new world, it is too late to restore the old Iraq; not all the king's men and all the king's armored divisions can put it back together again. By now it has broken into at least three parts, each of which may splinter soon enough.

Told to choose between Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq, I'd take the Kurds. They've been betrayed time and again in their tragic history -- at least since they were promised independence after the First World War and then denied it by a succession of imperial, and imperious, world-shapers. From our own Henry Kissinger, master of unreal Realpolitik, to both the shah of Iran and Iraq's late and unlamented Saddam Hussein. Let's not betray the Kurds yet again.

Now is finally the Kurds' time. Having sided with a succession of dictators in the Middle East, why not finally ally ourselves with a long oppressed people who have built a homeland of their own where democratic principles are increasingly honored instead of being trashed -- including a decent respect for women's rights, the rule of law and private property. Even the Turks, the Kurds' old oppressors, now see the wisdom of supporting them. Why don't we?

One of the persistent tragedies of modern Arab history has been that, whenever a budding moderation has been challenged by the latest form of Arab fanaticism, the fanatics have a way of winning out. That fatal flaw in the nomadic character was noted by the still redoubtable T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), the Englishman who adopted, maybe even invented, Arab nationalism. Col. Lawrence would diagnose that trait in his magnificent, romantic, poetic, consistently amusing, and still deeply insightful history of the Arab Revolt he led with such success, not to mention élan. He called his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," and here is one of them:

"Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants. None of them would escape the bond till success had come, and with it responsibility and duty and engagements. Then the idea was gone and the work ended -- in ruins.

"Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it; but if on the road, led in this fashion, they met the prophet of an idea, who had nowhere to lay his head and who depended for his food on charity or birds, then they would all leave their wealth for his inspiration. They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and color-blind, to whom body and spirit were forever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardor and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing."

All around the Middle East, minorities on its periphery wait to rise and escape the latest wave of Arab fanaticism, which sweeps over what used to be Iraq even now as the "Islamic State of Syria and the Levant" overflows out of the long-neglected chaos in Syria, and threatens to swamp not just the unsteady regime in Baghdad but neighboring Jordan and everything else in its violent wake.

Christian Maronites in Lebanon and Copts in Egypt, Jews in Israel and, yes, Kurds in a reborn Kurdistan are but a few of the groups that make up the periphery of peoples around the Arab heartland, and that offer the one thing the state formerly known as Iraq always lacked: cohesion. And hope, even the hope of reasonable rule. Why not give them all a fighting chance not only to survive in that dangerous neighborhood but to thrive?