Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Beggar Thy Neighbor

The Moor Next Door warns of the dangers in stirring up ethnic grievances to advance foreign policy ends.

I find the stirring of minority ambitions, especially those which are revolutionary in nature, such as Kurdish ones are, in poor taste. One cannot put these back into a bottle. The linger and foment. This also undermines the argument made by the Americans that they are not being subversive when it comes to Iranian internal affairs (which has always been no more than a poorly masked lie). Already there are dozens of think-tanks in Washington trying to figure out how to overthrow the Iranian regime, which to me makes the Iranian complaint of the Americans trying to create a "velvet revolution" in Iran quite credible. If the Americans feel that an Iran "without the mullahs" (as is often said) would be less dangerous and less inclined to seek nuclear technology, they are mistaken. It has been the aim of every Iranian government since the Qajars to dominate the Middle East and the nuclear program has long been a part of that aim; and it is a popular objective.

All this Kurdish fuddleduddle seems to me to be at the same time dangerous and insincere. Dangerous because it damages the stability of our allies (i.e. Turkey) and other already unstable states (i.e. Syria). Insincere because the United States is not a revolutionary power; it is a status quo power and only half supports revolutionary movements, and generally tries to preserve regional boundaries. The Kurds will not find a Kurdistan in America. They will find themselves offered up as tools for destabilizing Iran and then abandoned (as they were against Iraq in the 1970's; and without remorse by the American Congress) to be locked up, butchered or worse. I call it fuddleduddle because I see no long term benefit to allowing the Kurds to let their friends blow themselves up in Turkish cities. The Kurdish region of Iraq is beneficial in the short term, but if it persists in being a launch pad for PKK attacks, I am forced to ask who is the more valuable ally, the Turks or the Kurds? In this respect, I see that the Iraqi Kurds express no concern for the national interests of their neighbors (even as those neighbors are the allies of their patrons), or of their supposed country men (the Arabs of Iraq to their south, for whom Kurds interviewed consistently express a mixture of contempt and indifference). What kind of ally can a Kurdistan really be?

These are fair enough questions, but ones everyone should be asking themselves. Syria is playing the Palestinian refugee game in Lebanon, the Sunni insurgency game in Iraq. Iran is playing Moqtada al-Sadr card in southern Iraq. None of this refutes the Moor Next Door's observation about the dangers of playing ethnic politics in a region as volatile as a powderkeg. But surely it is truthful to say that everyone is playing the same dangerous game.

The Moor Next Door rightly observes that, once having stirred things up "one cannot put these back into a bottle." That observation must apply not only to the traditional kind of ethnic proxy warfare being fought in the region by nation-states, but also to the movements like al-Qaeda headed by Osama Bin Laden. Motivating the Fort Dix Six to attack American targets through messages posted on the Internet or preached in secret are in some ways comparable to stirring up Kurds in Iran.

Whichever side of the political debate one is on, it may be possible to accept in common that the wave of covert, undeclared warfare now spreading is like the genie of his metaphor, liable to overwhelm its conjurors. What goes around, comes around. That observation doesn't solve anything, but it does make things clearer.

I remarked, half-facetiously some posts ago that Paul Bremer may in the end have been right in vetoing early US military proposals to organize the Anbar tribes. There are clearly great advantages to setting one faction against the other. But the obvious downside is that unless the process of pitting one group of gunmen against the other goes according to a plan the end result is a Balkanization of the country one is trying to build.

There are rumors Turkey has made an armed incursion into Kurdistan and the news is well covered by Pajamas Media. Iraq's neighbors do not seem to treat it as a state. The Syrians, Iranians and now the Turks feel free to cross its borders and attack it's nominally sovereign territory with impunity; to attack Kurdish guerilla bases, snatch British sailors or attack American troops according to preference.

Ironically, neither Iraqi, British nor American troops are on any account allowed to cross the border the other way. No sir. That would constitute a breach of international law. That frustration with the limitations of international law or rules of engagement limiting counterinsurgency inevitably tempt commanders to indulge instead in war by proxy. And there we are with ethnic instability again.

This creates a situation pregnant with danger. Turkey, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia are precisely the countries which diplomats hope will guarantee Iraq's internal peace and security once America withdraws. But in absence of an exteranal guarantor, the nonexistence of a de facto Iraqi state will mean every part of its carcass will be up for grabs. If news of the Turkish incursion are true, the buzzards are already taking their first tentative pecks.

Nor do Iraq's external guarantors provide much protection even now. Politicians in Syria and Iran can read the Western papers as well as anyone and know there is little political support for holding Damascus or Teheran to account. If Turkey has in fact raided across the border, the question is not why, but what took it so long. Whatever else the politics of the last two years has achieved, it has a sent a strong signal to both the Iraqi peoples and their neighbors that none of the structures, guarantees or assurances built since 2004 have any accepted credibility. That perception of weakness is a destabilizing factor in itself, and one for which no one will admit responsibility.


Blogger NahnCee said...

America just arrested a bunch of Laotians refugees on the grounds that they are fomenting an invasion/overthrow of the current Laotian government. The word "terrorism" is being used, and it seems to me that that is accurate. One wonders how many plots to overthrow how many governments are currently being hatched in the United States ... or even just in the UN alone!

6/06/2007 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Gerecht has a long piece in the Weekly Standard about stirring up ethnic unrests. Not in Iran but in Iraq. Even the densest military commander must ask, 'why must the door open only one way?'. Does it lead to stability? Ah! But that's a different question.

An assumption of the Iraq Study Group was that the clerical regime wants stability next door in Iraq. Hence it might be willing to work with Americans. Yet Iran has benefited enormously from Iraqi instability. Traditional, moderate clerics like Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have been willing to work with Americans, have been battered and bruised by the violence. The radical Moktada al-Sadr, a little-known and little-admired scion of a famous clerical family, skyrocketed to prominence because of the strife and thanks to critical Iranian aid to him. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its more radical military wing, the Badr Organization, has also benefited enormously from the violence. SCIRI is a key Iraqi player that has received substantial assistance from Tehran. What is particularly regrettable about SCIRI is that the bloodletting has made life more difficult for moderates within the organization. And the violence has made it harder for SCIRI to pull away from Iranian patronage.

Does Iran want to stop this process? Iraq's Arab Sunni community--detested by the Iranians--has been routed from much of Baghdad, badly bloodied, and put to flight by the hundreds of thousands. This is a bad thing in the eyes of Tehran? Where does Iran have the most influence in Iraq? In Basra, where Shiite-versus-Shiite violence is at its worst. This is not a coincidence. Tehran has benefited massively from Iraqi Shiite division and internecine strife. What the United States should expect from Iran is that it will continue to ship its deadly explosives to Iraq and, through violence, feed the radicalization of the Shiite community. Success through Hezbollah in civil-war-torn Lebanon is the model to remember. Until now, it's been Iran's only successful foray abroad. "Stability" in Iraq means only one thing to Tehran: an American success.

6/06/2007 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

I agree that pitting sect against sect is a poor way of handling things, so please don't take what I'm about to write as any objection to or criticism of that broad point. I agree with it. But, in the case of the Kurds specifically: Isn't Moor Next Door being overly broad and cynical about them? From reading Michael Totten's blog, I see a more moderate picture of the Kurds, at least in the cities he visited. Maybe it's a fair criticism to say "those are the Kurds in Iraq, not elsewhere", but my very narrowly focused point is that Nouri's (M.N.D's author) viewpoint is not as broad as his otherwise well written post implies. For one, the PKK is held with ambivalence at best in the Iraqi Kurdish areas, and are pursued. Two: Arabs and Persians have traditionally held a rather contemptuous view of the Kurds through history, and while much of it isn't necessarily unjustified, it is something to keep in mind when analyzing an Arab's opinion of the Kurds.

Its edifying to read Michael's posts on his trip to Iraqi Kurdistan and his interviews and observations.

Sorry to go tangential on the topic. I realize the main thrust is the dangers of "stirring up ethnic grievances to advance foreign policy ends" as you put it. I only wanted to add to a small corner of that topic the discussion of Nouri's views, because they stood out in contrast to what I read at Totten's blog.

6/06/2007 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Whoops! I just betrayed my ignorance. Nouri is Algerian. That doesn't necessarily mean I was wrong in characterizing his (?) blog as Arab, since there's a strong Arab influx and influence on that nation, but Berbers are not Arabs, and Africa is not the Middle East. So I still need to acknowledge my mistake.

Anyway, I'll leave it to those better versed in that part of the world to determine whether this undermines my argument or not. I don't feel it does, but I'm willing to listen to opinions about that.

6/06/2007 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

I thought the Moor was pretty hard on the Kurds, but that may flow from his politics. His point about the dangers of ethnic agitation though struck me as a more general accusation, but one whose finger pointed in all directions.

My own feeling is that ethnic agitation is a weapon now in general use, both against us and eventually by us. Whether we can afford not use it is something I have to think about. But I also understand that using this weapon means you manipulate the lives of people. Trade on their cherished dreams; set one side against the other. This is potentially a dirty and dangerous game. I think it is fair to observe that whatever one's politics may be.

6/06/2007 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

True that. I fully agree with you. That's also why I've been wary despite my rather positive view of the Kurds in Iraq. I don't share the magnitude of Nouri's opinion, and I think some of it is just plain prejudice, but at the same time, I feel the need for moderation vis-a-vis the Kurdish situation there. I see no need to pit Kurd against Arab, which is why I'm ambivalent of the "split Iraq into 3 sects" plan proposed by some; it turns the act of division into a free-for-all grab for territory, and does exactly what you, Nouri, and I feel is best avoided, which is pit sect against sect.

In the Kurdish case specifically, if general violence can be brought down - yes, I very well know that's the messy part - I think that they can be persuaded to be one within a whole nation rather than one sect left to fend off the other two. That embody the US ideal of a plurality of different peoples and avoids the very problem you point out in this post. But yes, the "reduce general violence" issue is the show-stopper right now, so maybe I'm thinking too far ahead.

Anyway, back on topic: Yes, such meddling has disastrous results. Again pointing to Michael Totten's blog, we're seeing this in Lebanon, with the unusual yet unfortunately predictable twist of Syria and Iran wanting that disaster, intentionally provoking it, in fact. The unrest suits their aims. And unfortunately, the Lebanese are caught in the middle. To those who haven't visited him yet, I gladly recommend his blog. It provides a good insight into the issues facing Lebanon (the Kurdish themes were earlier posts; he always returns to blogging about Lebanese events).

6/06/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger John Lynch said...

We can't predict the future, but that shouldn't paralyze us into inaction. If it's bad for Iran, it's probably good for us. We have to depend on future leadership to manage the consequences.

6/06/2007 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Several observations:

One, the status quo benefits Islamists of the Khomeni or bin Laden stripe, chaos as Spengler notes at the Asian Times benefits the US. Because the US has the biggest stick, and if it can find the will to use it, can favor one faction over another with no desire at all to stay and rule, unlike local players.

Promoting chaos helps the US because it increases our leverage. The Bush 1 model of sinking the Iranian Navy comes to mind. Low risk for the US, no messy TV cameras or protests over casualties, and a desperate need for the US Navy and Air Force.

I can't think of anything better given the consensus to avoid at all costs ground occupation leading from combat.

Secondly IMHO (and I've told him this on his blog, perhaps he's banned me for saying so), Michael Totten romanticizes Kurds.

They are not evil nor devils, but neither are they modern people despite some of the trappings of it. The Yazidi girl stoned to death for dating a Muslim boy in the next village as men and the Police watched and filmed it on their video-enabled cell phones is the most dramatic illustration of this.

Failure to develop national rather than tribal institutions, failure to embrace modernity (rule of law, duty to protect the helpless, etc) rather than it's mere outward trappings, and ruthless protection of tribal interests.

Why did the Yazidi girl have to die? To protect the Yazidi tribe. Why do the Kurds act against their own interests (by allowing the PKK to attack and stir up Turkish counterattacks)? Because tribal Kurdish/clan identities trumps rational state-oriented politics.

Since there exists no real states in the Western sense, where hawks and troublemakers can be liquidated or arrested depending on preference by the State, it's useless to do anything other than play the tribal game with them all: Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Turkey, the Kurds, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and all the rest.

Turkey despite Ataturk's best efforts remains a rabble of tribes and clans not a modern people. Despite the numerically small but glamorous coastal elites (as in Lebanon).

Totten sees modern housing and mobile phones and thinks the Kurds are a great folk, modern like us. [Ironically he wrote about visiting a Yazidi shrine, romanticized it as well IMHO]. But as we can see that modernity is only microns deep. They remain a tribal people and should be treated as such.

6/06/2007 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

As an American patriot and taxpayer, I hope and pray that the United States is using every means at its disposal to foment ethnic unrest in Iran.

Iran declared war against the US in 1979 and has prosecuted that war by concealed means and proxies ever since then. Any thing that weakens Iran is good for the United States. If Iran dissolved into 4 or 5 chaotic states, it would be that much better for us.

The Middle East in the 20th Century is not Europe in the 19th. Lord Palmerston had to maintain a balance of power. If the Middle East fragmented into 15 small states, it would not affect US.

We do not need Iran to be a bulwark against the Russians. Apparently Putin is not worried about a united Iran. Nor do we need it to balance Iraq.

Ethnic Persians are a bare majority of the population of Iran. Many Iranian ethnic groups, such as the Azeri Turks, the Balouchs and the Kurds would be happy to see the backs of the Persians, who do nothing but steal from them.

Iran has been attacking US in Iraq by fomenting ethnic discord. They deserve no less from US.

6/06/2007 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jeiffer said...

"...unleash the mad dogs of war." Mad dogs don't act rationally.

There is such a thing as "War Fever" that impels whole populations into cataclysms of violence.

The ruling groups of Kurdistan ARE the groups on the attack in Turkey, are they not! They have recently restrained themselves so long as they depended on us for protection, but the American gamble in Iraq has been that they would now turn from dreaming of Kurdistan to making money and living well as a loyal part of an Iraqi nation-state.

We are in no position to chide Turkey for attempting to maintain their own nation-state for their own survival in peace, and no one should chide us for trying to create a viable nation-state in Iraq that rationally values peace and survival through prosperity.

Saying that the nation-state is a relic of the past around the globe and never be a part of the future in the Middle East is truly a counsel of despair.

If, however, nation-states have no reliable survival on a case-by-case basis, then we really need to get draconian about nukes. The Foggy Bottom types fear chaos in a destabilized Iran, as well we all should.

Well, then, given the prospects of an Azeri uprising in Iran, or Saudi intervention in Southern Iraq, wouldn't one think that--if Foggy Bottom had unfogged sense--they'd be feverishly working up ways to prevent Iranian nukes by any means necessary. And, foreseeing the coming chaos, would they not be hiring Azeri-speaking analysts by the hundreds?

As for The Blame [there must be blame in War], well, we must go back past the feckless European colonialists to the Ottomans, no? Oh, the Ottomans inherited the whole mess from the Mughals, the Sassanids, the Mongols, or the Parthians, right?

Right! And those rascally Parthians wouldn't have been so darned difficult if those neo-fascist Spartans had not held the Persians at Thermopylae so long.

Hmmm, Pax Persicae [sic?], there's an appealing concept!

... anyone for a Pox [sic] Sinensis?

6/07/2007 01:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About my views on the Kurds:
I am a reader of Michael Totten's blog, and I consider him a friend. However, I consider his journalism to be of the advocacy variety, it is not neutral and he will tell you as much. He is a fan of Kurdish independence and nationalism. I think this to be a problem because no regional actor would accept it. It might be called revolutionary. Whether the Kurds are friemdly does not matter if they are nor friendly to all their neighbors. They are alone in the region, save for their friendship with America. They allow the PKK to operate in their region and attack Turkey (a major, major American ally) and do little to stop it. If the people do not care for PKK, it does not show. The authorities in Kurdistan should take serious action and they are not. An unstable Turkey is not a good thing, regardless of Kurdish national aspirations. If the Kurds are truly friendly, they will behave themselves. Action is more important than sentiment.

6/07/2007 07:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, about Algerians being or not being Arabs; most are Arabs and Algeria is a member of the Arab League and most Algerians strongly identify themselves as Arabs. There is a large Berber minority though, made of many different ethnic groups who identify with Arab culture to varying degrees. I personally am of Chawi Berber blood on my father's side and Syro-Lebanese Arab American blood on my mother's. I am personally indifferent to either classification. One can hardly describe the Arab presence in Algeria as an "influx". It is part of the very nature of the nation. This would be like saying that Egypt has a strong Muslim influx. Furthermore, North Africa is more culturally near to the Middle East than it is to the rest of Africa, and it is regularly classified as part of the Middle/Near East or at least an extension of it (for instance, the State Department and the National Security Council).

About Arabo-Persian opinions of Turks: North Africa has no Kurds. I have no opinion of their culture or their people other than that their local authorities are placing American interests at risk. And I should note that the Kurds are not without their traditional prejudices against the other two groups; reading history (even before Anfal), Michael's blog and talking to Kurds casually reveals this. Michael's blog, as I said before, is very, very biased towards the Kurdish cause and tends to paint a very glossy picture of Iraqi Kurdistan, one which is not shared by individuals I know who have lived and traveled there recently and in previously.

As for breaking Iran into several chaotic states; this is a bad idea, much human life would be lost and Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq and all the Gulf states would be put at risk if Iran collapsed into any kind of chaos as all of those nations depend on Iran's stability and docility for their own security (that is the nature of their geography). This would disrupt American access to resources and would likely end up greatly harming Israel. American interests are not served by a violent Middle East; if 15+ little Iraqs emerged, I think the world be a much worse off place in the long term. One may dislike Iran at the present time, but getting rid of or reducing its territory would be disadvantageous in the long term, as one would have to take into account the interests of the constituent states and those of the surrounding powers when dealing with it in a way not seen with a singular Iran. Furthermore, one should not underestimate the attatchment that Iranians have ot their country. Azeris, Turkmen, Persians, Arabs, even Kurds, all have shown loyalty to Iran in times of crisis throught history and a strong commitment to its territorial integrity. Ahmadinejad is an Azeri, as is the current Supreme Leader. Iran is not Pakistan or Iraq. It has been a country for several hundred years; it was not sketched out on a British napkin. Most of the Iranian minority groups are very closely related culturally and linguistically. It would be difficult to foment meaningful unrest outside of Kurdistan, and doing so would put the interests of Turkey at risk, and destabilizing Turkey is a bad move even if it satisfies the emotional American politics against Iran.

6/07/2007 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Thank you, Nouri, for your information about how Algerians view themselves. I'm simply not very well informed about the North African nations and cultures, so I was trying to avoid accidental insult by misidentifying your ethnicity. I know Persians really dislike being lumped in with Arabs in racial classifications, and I feared I committed a similar error of mistaken race when I saw that Michael identified your blog as Algerian. Anyway, I didn't realize many Algerians identified themselves as Arabs; what I wrote was from a panicked, minute-or-two long lesson gathered from the internet on the Algerian national character. I wanted to correct what I feared might have been a misidentification as quickly as possible, so the result unfortunately ended up being rather superficial. But your correction clarifies things. Duly noted, and thank you for the information.

6/07/2007 01:49:00 PM  

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