The Wages of Intervention

by , December 20, 2007

I had to laugh when I saw the headline: "Iraq Kurdish leader snubs Rice over Turkey raid." So Condi went all the way to Iraq to resolve this latest crisis in our fast-unraveling Iraqi protectorate, only to be told by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan autonomous region, the diplomatic equivalent of "go fly a kite." Such are the wages of interventionism: that’s what we get for the billions poured into "liberated" Kurdistan over the years, not to mention the lives of our soldiers who fought and died to free Kurdistan from Saddam Hussein.

Yet who can blame the Kurds? After all, we’re supposed to be their "liberators," and yet here we are, not merely standing idly by while Turkish warplanes bomb their country, but actively encouraging Ankara’s aggression. Oh, the bitter irony! Ah, but that’s power politics for you – allies turn into enemies in an instant, and the rule of thumb is to simply ask, "What have you done for me lately?"

Or, in the case of the Kurds, what have you done to me lately? The U.S. and the Kurds, formerly best friends, are on the road to an acrimonious divorce, with the battle over spousal support and custody of the kids bound to be an epic battle.

In this case, I’m betting on the Kurds. No tougher, more intransigent people exist in the entire region: the Kurdish peshmerga, known for their valor, form the backbone of the Iraqi army, such as it is. The historic dream of the Kurdish nationalist movement is the creation of a Greater Kurdistan, of which the establishment of the autonomous "regional government" of Kurdistan is but the first baby step.

Technically, Kurdistan is a province of Iraq, yet it has functioned as a de facto independent state since the establishment of the northern "no fly zone" in 1991. Ever since then, with Saddam cut off from his Kurdish domains, the Kurds have ruled themselves. Though up until this point very pro-American, Kurdistan is not exactly a Jeffersonian republic. The state is controlled by two families – the Barzanis and the Talabanis, who head up the two main political parties – and is a model of crony capitalism. In spite of this, however, Kurdistan is relatively free and has attracted a certain level of investment.

Among the major investors is Hunt Oil, a Texas-based firm that has close ties to the Bush administration, with whom the Kurdistan regional government recently signed contracts. CEO Ray Hunt was the finance chairman of the RNC in 2002 and contributed heavily to Bush’s campaigns – not to mention giving a grand total of $350,000 for both Bush inaugural celebrations and raising $35 million for the Bush Library. His reward has been a seat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, an agency that has been a redoubt of neoconservative influence within the administration.

While Ray is the son of H. L. Hunt, the lovable old McCarthyite of the 1950s, whose sponsorship of such groups as the Facts Forum and the John Birch Society gained him notoriety as an ultra-rightist, the son has not exactly followed in his father’s footsteps. Old H. L. was an isolationist, who disdained such liberal One-Worlder schemes as foreign aid and overseas meddling: he was mainly concerned about the ascendancy of socialism in America. The younger Hunt, however, has a different, more "modern" orientation, like so many heirs of conservative business fortunes: interventionism is profitable for him and his business interests, as it is for his cronies, such as Dick Cheney, his fellow Halliburton board member.

Aside from the impropriety of Hunt’s investment – as a member of the PFIAB, he has access to secret intelligence that is unavailable to his competitors – there is the question of his ties to the CIA. As referenced here, Hunt Oil aircraft were spotted making at least two recent visits to the CIA’s Camp Peary training facility. As to what the relationship is, and what advantage the CIA link is to Hunt Oil as a profit-making enterprise, I’ll leave to the reader’s imagination. Suffice to say that the connections of U.S. intelligence agencies to Kurdish rebel groups, not only on the Turkish-Iraqi border but within Iraq proper, are known, at least in general outline.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the main Kurdish group carrying out terrorist attacks on Turkish civilian and military targets, has long operated with impunity inside Iraq, in the territory controlled by the Kurdish regional government. In 2003, the detention of Turkish soldiers by U.S. troops – captured when they crossed the border with Iraq in hot pursuit of PKK terrorists – underscored the developing rupture with Washington. The Turks, who were once among the firmest of America’s allies in the region, began to fall out out of favor in Washington, on account of their efforts to reach out to Iran and Syria and contain the consequences of the Iraqi breakup. Their refusal to let the U.S. use Turkish territory as a launching pad for the invasion didn’t help relations, either.

Turkey, Iran, and Syria have one thing in common, and that is substantial – and fairly radicalized – Kurdish minorities, with active guerrilla groups in the first two, and sporadic reports of Kurdish unrest in Syria. That they are beginning to coordinate their efforts to tamp down Kurdish separatist activities comes as no surprise. This is yet more blowback from the invasion and breakup of Iraq. However, the Turkish-Syrian-Iranian rapprochement has provoked the wrath of the Israel lobby in Washington, and this was a key factor in getting the Armenian genocide resolution through Congress, which further alienated Ankara.

Rice’s mission to Iraq was designed to showcase the alleged reduction in violence that is supposed to be due to the surge, yet her visit merely underscored the fragility of the U.S. position and the prospects for a rapid disintegration. Turkish forces drove into the northern part of Iraq just as the American secretary of state was in Kirkuk. The Kurds claim the city as their historic "Jerusalem," and it is the epicenter of an internal political struggle between Arabs and Kurds, characterized by ethnic cleansing and methods utilized by the Kurdish ultra-nationalists that can only be termed terroristic.

Kirkuk is the historic center of Iraq’s oil industry, and control of the city and surrounding countryside is a key goal of the Kurds. A referendum to decide who has jurisdiction was scheduled for this year but had to be postponed because of a political deadlock in the Iraqi parliament. The Kurds have gone ahead and signed oil contracts, however, not only with Hunt Oil but with companies in the UK, Belgium, France, and Korea. The Iraqi oil ministry, however, says these contracts are null and void. In short, a conflict is brewing – and it won’t be very long before it shatters the "peace" of the surge.

Although I don’t know all the details, it seems to me that the current Kurdish brouhaha is reminiscent of what happened with Ahmed Chalabi, the neocon with nine lives. Chalabi, you’ll remember, was the darling of the neoconservatives, who touted him as the George Washington of Iraq and gave him the kind of credibility that would later prove so mistaken – and so costly. He was, however, hated by the CIA, which rightly considered him a charlatan, a thief, and perhaps worse. As long as Chalabi was useful to U.S. policymakers, he was kept on retainer and supplied with all sorts of assistance; the minute he was not useful and the faction supporting him had fallen into disrepute, the CIA raided his Iraqi compound and spread the story that he was working for the Iranians.

The same pattern repeats itself with the Kurds, who were initially protected by U.S. warplanes and then lavishly funded after the invasion. There seems little doubt that U.S. military supplies intended for the Iraqi police and Kurdish military units somehow fell into the hands of the PKK and groups such as Pejak, the anti-Iranian Kurdish military force that is essentially the same organization as the PKK. Now that covert operations carried out by the U.S. government – or elements of it – have backfired and caused a real rift with the Turks, Rice has been dispatched to the region to patch things up. Yet there is little she can do about it at this point.

With one hand the U.S. government wreaks damage to its own interests, while the other hand is employed to clean up the mess. The Turks say they are using U.S. intelligence as well as acting with Washington’s full approval, and no doubt they find the former quite useful: after all, their American overseers have every reason to know where the Kurdish guerrillas are and how they operate. As for rooting them out – again, I’m betting on the Kurds…

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has unleashed forces over which we have absolutely no control, and perhaps the most potentially destructive, if not the most potent, is Kurdish nationalism – which, in the present context, means Kurdish expansionism. Nor are the Kurds without allies in the region: the Israelis have cultivated the Kurds, arming and training their peshmerga and making significant economic investments, as reported by Seymour Hersh. The idea is to use the Kurds as a source of intelligence and to pinprick the Iranians. U.S. intervention on the side of the Turks means that the Americans are directly confronting Israeli interests in Kurdistan – yet another sign of a developing rupture in the much-vaunted "special relationship."

The wages of intervention are paltry indeed: we get the dubious satisfaction, in our self-appointed role as world "leader," of arbitrating ancient feuds and fresh conflicts constantly erupting in every part of the globe – and when it comes to Mesopotamia, there is no paucity of historic vendettas. As U.S. troops are increasingly caught in the crossfire between Shi’ites and Sunnis, Kurds and Turks, the Israelis and nearly everyone else, at some point the American people are going to wake up and say: "Enough! We don’t want a single U.S. soldier to die for a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ or a unitary Iraqi state – because it’s none of our business, after all."

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I‘ve got an article in The American Conservative, "Robinson Jeffers, Peace Poet," now online.

For my latest election commentary, go here and here.

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