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Published on: April 19, 2011
Libya and Iraq, Rebels and Kurds

Making connections between the current engagement in Libya and our ongoing project in Iraq is not usually well received. To be fair, there are perhaps more differences than similarities. The European Union’s plans to ask, at last, for UN permission to send ground troops into Libya is nothing if not agonizingly slow in coming to […]

Making connections between the current engagement in Libya and our ongoing project in Iraq is not usually well received. To be fair, there are perhaps more differences than similarities. The European Union’s plans to ask, at last, for UN permission to send ground troops into Libya is nothing if not agonizingly slow in coming to fruition, compared to the rapid-fire shock & awe campaign that so mesmerized us in 2003. And the ongoing reluctance to use military force explicitly to unseat Qaddafi stands in stark contrast to President Bush’s brash and bullying stance towards Saddam. Nevertheless, the two conflicts do share one glaring similarity: a troubling lack of clarity on the local political realities that are likely to make our commitment much longer and more arduous than even the most pessimistic prognosticators figure.

Jeffrey Goldberg, in his infamous New Yorker article from 2002, wrote the following about Saddam Hussein’s heinous campaign against the Kurds:

The Anfal campaign was not an end in itself, like the Holocaust, but a means to an end—an instance of a policy that Samantha Power, who runs the Carr Center for Human Rights, at Harvard, calls “instrumental genocide.” Power has just published A Problem from Hell, a study of American responses to genocide. “There are regimes that set out to murder every citizen of a race,” she said. “Saddam achieved what he had to do without exterminating every last Kurd.” What he had to do, Power and others say, was to break the Kurds’ morale and convince them that a desire for independence was foolish.

Max Boot, writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, presented the following argument for why the United States should not be keen on leaving Iraq any time soon:

U.S. forces play a particularly important role as a peacekeeper between the Kurdish peshmerga militia and the Iraqi Security Forces along the ill-defined frontier (the “Green Line”) between Iraq proper and the Kurdish Regional Government. On a visit to Iraq last month, I encountered the umpteenth crisis between the Kurds and Arabs. The peshmerga had come down south of the Green Line to surround the disputed city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi army was moving troops to the area. Shooting could have broken out were it not for the presence of the U.S. army in the middle.

Now, though it would be disingenuous to argue that we invaded Iraq primarily in order to save the Kurds (a people who were doing fairly well for themselves under the no-fly zone we had established in the north after the first Gulf war), it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that “helping the Kurds” was a side benefit widely trumpeted by Iraq war supporters. The Kurds were pro-American and anti-Saddam and would prove a reliable ally in a volatile and hostile Middle East. Indeed, there was talk about the Kurdish nation as some kind of second bulwark of American influence in the region, standing alongside Israel as a beacon of what was possible when democracy was allowed to flourish.

Without casting aspersions on the historical right of the Kurdish nation to self-determination or getting into the thorny question of who should control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, it is painfully clear from reading Goldberg’s description of Saddam’s murderous policies exactly where we went wrong. Saddam’s genocide was “instrumental” after all: It served as a gruesome means to the very definite political end of discouraging Kurdish independence. While this should not excuse Anfal one bit, it does once again reveal how harmful “feel-good” policies are if they are not examined carefully in light of political realities. It verges on irresponsible that our method of dealing with the Kurdish question was to throw democracy at it in hopes that differences could be worked out.

That the Kurds were able to set up relatively functional democratic institutions for themselves during the 1990s shouldn’t have indicated to us that a multi-ethnic Iraqi democracy is particularly likely. On the contrary, it should have suggested that the Kurds were preparing themselves for a fairly autonomous existence after the fall of Saddam, and that their dream of independence was undimmed. By removing Saddam, we removed a major obstacle standing in the way of their dream. Yet insofar as we’re committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity and a reasonably strong central government (and we absolutely are as long as we count Turkey as an ally and Iran as an adversary), the Kurdish question is nothing short of a serious problem for us. If Max Boot is right and Arab-Kurdish tensions are indeed on a knife’s edge as he describes, then Iraq as we’ve set it up may not be workable, and we’re faced with the choice between additional years of triage (with perhaps no end in sight, like in Bosnia) or the outbreak of hostilities.

The Libya parallels are suggestive, if not perfect. Even if we grant that NATO’s action averted a genocide (and, although there is ample historical evidence that Qaddafi is capable of severe brutality, the claim that he was about to embark on a policy of extermination rather than urban conquest remains dubious), the fact remains that Qaddafi was contemplating the “instrumental” form of the crime: using violence against civilians in order to forestall rebellion to his rule. By acting to prevent his barbarity, we have implicitly (and then explicitly) endorsed the politics of his opposition without giving adequate thought as to what that might mean. Just as with Iraq’s Kurds, the idea was that a pro-American and pro-democratic faction would form the foundation of a new and prosperous Libya, which would serve at least as a symbol of the West’s benevolent attitude towards the new people-powered revolutions in the Middle East. Unfortunately for us, there is an increasing volume of evidence that the legitimacy of the revolution is not being recognized across the entire country, with some of the principal tribes of the south and west throwing their weight behind Qaddafi.

Just like in Iraq, our options aren’t particularly pleasant. Given the very explicit demands by Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron that Qaddafi step down, short of regime decapitation we’ve limited ourselves to cease-fire agreements that provide for Qaddafi’s departure. The situation is fluid and anything is still technically possible, but the conflict seems to be grinding to a stalemate. Qaddafi feels comfortable enough to take a mid-day drive through downtown Tripoli, thumbing his nose at our efforts to unseat him. De facto partition via Western air cover may not be perfectly workable in all seasons due to crippling sandstorms, and redrawing international boundaries due to our intervention is probably as much a non-starter in North Africa as it is in the Middle East. And even in the best case scenario in which Qaddafi somehow disappears, we’d still have the difficult job of helping the various parties reconcile. Saying that this is a “task for the Libyan people themselves” is misleading at best.

In any case, the “days, not weeks” prediction may come to be seen as Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” moment—the ironic inflection point after which our prolonged involvement in a riven country is virtually ensured.

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