If we want to understand why President Obama has broken yet another major campaign promise and ordered America’s return to Iraq, the key question to ask is: Why now?
After all, the Islamic State in Syria/al-Sham (ISIS) has been scoring dramatic military gains for months, and yet in spite of that the President stubbornly resisted calls by Republican hawks to give Baghdad air cover. Nine-hundred special forces were sent in to "train" the Iraqis and coordinate strategy, but Obama insisted they would not go into combat and air strikes were considered out of the question. No matter how loudly John McCain yelped, and his Pekinese who goes by the name Lindsey Graham barked, the White House was adamant about not re-engaging.
So what happened?
The cover story we are being given is that 40,000 members of the formerly obscure Yazidi sect were being threatened with "genocide" by ISIS, which is supposedly demanding they convert to Islam or die. Now the hapless Yazidis have fled to Mount Singar – their historic home, in any event – and are without food and water. It was yet another "humanitarian catastrophe," a matter of life and death: we had to act or we’d be responsible for "genocide."
The problem with this narrative is that ISIS has been beheading its way through Iraq all these months with nary a peep from our vaunted "humanitarians." And yet suddenly, we are told, it was imperative that we act. Why? Are the Yazidis so special that their suffering counts for more than the Shi’ites and others who have faced the very same predicament – conversion or death – in northern, central, and eastern Iraq? Surely not.
So we return to the original question: why now? The answer is the central axiom of real estate: location, location, location. ISIS was getting close to Kurdistan, and eyeing Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The feisty Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos spread by ISIS to seize disputed Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider their Jerusalem. Aside from the symbolic value of this prize, Kirkuk is also the site of oil fields worth a substantial amount of moolah. But before we segue into the familiar mantra about how this is a "war for oil," let’s step back and look at the larger picture – because it’s really much worse than that.
The Iraqi state is collapsing: as I and other opponents of US intervention predicted at the beginning of the Iraq war, the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime meant that the Iraqi Humpty-Dumpty was broken – and could never be put back together again. Since Iraq was never a real country to begin with – its borders were drawn by the British Foreign Office in the wake of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire – it was inevitable that the country would fall apart without the Ba’athist terror that held it together. Ba’athism represented the only viable Iraqi nationalist ideology, and when the neocons got their hands around Iraq’s throat the first thing they did was launch a "de-Ba’athifation" campaign, purging the military, dispersing the bureaucracy, and "cleansing" the remnants of the educational system – effectively sounding the death knell of Iraq.
We have seen this process of dissolution dramatized in the antics surrounding the fate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the widely-hated leader of the coalition Shi’ite-dominated government who is being blamed for the rise of ISIS. According to the White House, Maliki so alienated every other faction in Iraq – notably the Sunnis – that an effective national government is impossible. Washington is doing its best to oust him, but he’s stubbornly hanging on – in large part because he knows he probably won’t survive his ouster.
Yet blaming Maliki is just a way of masking Iraq’s post-invasion predicament: as a nation, rather than just a name on a map, Iraq has ceased to exist.
Three separate and distinct nations are emerging from the rubble: a southern Shi’ite state, a northern Sunni entity, and Kurdistan. This was the unacknowledged goal of those who agitated for the US invasion to begin with: to atomize Iraq, and, in short, create chaos. Looking at Iraq today, one recalls George W. Bush declaring "Mission accomplished!" – and suddenly the real nature of that mission is all too apparent.
Yet the actual goal, and the public version of our war aims – an Iraq "whole and free" – were contradictory: in public the Bush administration was committed to the unity of Iraq, and demands by the Kurds for an independent state were brushed aside. In spite of this, however, the actual policy had been to encourage the Kurds at every turn.
Since 1991 a no-fly zone had been maintained over Kurdistan and the Kurds enjoyed de facto independence, a condition they took full advantage of. Under the American occupation authority, they had still been denied Kirkuk, but for all intents and purposes Kurdistan has functioned as an independent state.
One measure of their de facto independence has been their growing ties to Israel: the vaunted pershmerga, as their fighting force is called, have been trained by the Israelis, and no doubt arms have been flowing into the Kurdish arsenal via Tel Aviv. After the Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk the first oil shipment from the KRG to a foreign market made a beeline to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that Kurdish independence is "inevitable."
In gaining their one and only ally in the region, and – by the way – securing a reliable energy source on good terms – Israel is claiming the spoils of war. It is also realizing, in the breakup of Iraq, one of its longstanding goals: the humbling of an historical enemy and the extension of Israeli power into the very heart of the Middle East. "From the Nile to the Euphrates" is the phrase that defines the geographical bounds of the "promised land," according to their interpretation of the Bible, and it is a concept central to the Zionist dream.
In the Kurds the Israelis have aligned with a people very like their own, both in history and temperament: not that temperament is inherent, but that history has a way of imprinting itself on the human personality. Both the Kurds and the Jews were a people without a homeland, subjected to oppression in the form of military conquest, murderous pogroms, and a constant struggle just to survive against great odds.
In the case of Israel, this tragic saga led directly to the success of the Zionist movement among Jews worldwide and the creation of Israel – the militaristic, expansionist, increasingly authoritarian Sparta we see today.
In the case of the Kurds, we see a similar result, albeit on a lesser scale: a militant, militarized, intensely nationalistic population alienated from its Arab neighbors and obsessed with an ongoing sense of grievance. And while Kurdistan, like Israel, apes the forms of democracy, the reality is essentially authoritarian – with an extra dollop of thuggishness thrown in for good measure.
Kurdistan is lorded over by the Barzani clan, a.k.a. the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) – which is anything but democratic. They share power with the other clan-based party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has its base of support in urban centers like Sulaymaniyah, and which was given control of national offices as compensation for the KDP’s hegemony on the home front.
Relations between these two clans – the Barzanis and the Talabanis – have not always been so cordial. The KDP and the ostensibly Marxist PUK were at each others’ throats in the latter part of the 1970s, and even after war broke out between Iraq and Iran the internal power struggle continued: they didn’t agree to a united military front against Saddam Hussein until 1986, when the Kurds rose up. The rebellion didn’t last, however, as the KDP ended the armed struggle and sought accommodation with Baghdad. The PUK considered this a sellout, and tensions between the two continued to rise.
However, a fresh external threat to Saddam’s rule – the first Gulf war – was the occasion for another Kurdish rising, which ended – after a horrific slaughter – in at least partial success. In the war’s wake a no-fly zone was established by the Anglo-American victors and the Kurdish Regional Government was established: elections yielded a virtual tie between the KDP and the PUK – and this set the stage for a vicious civil war.
It was a war over who would control the black market in oil: Baghdad cut a deal with the Barzani clan to set up a clandestine route to transport oil, an arrangement that enriched the KDP leaders – and left the PUK out in the cold. The civil war was brutal: thousands were killed and many more expelled from their homes. The Talabani clan turned to Iran for support, and the KDP turned to Saddam. In conjunction with the Iraqi Republican Guards, Barzani’s troops besieged Erbil and took it, executing hundreds. The internecine slaughter continued until the Turks invaded in response to the presence of yet another faction in Kurdistan: the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), whose presence was tolerated by the KRG and which had been waging a terrorist campaign in Turkey, targeting civilians and hitting tourist areas. The Turkish incursion led to a temporary truce, but this was soon broken and fighting resumed. The bloodletting didn’t stop until Washington took the two parties in hand and guaranteed Kurdish "autonomy" – in reality, de facto independence – in return for a pledge to keep Saddam (and Iran) out of the KRG’s territory.
Over the years the PUK has been in decline and the KDP has established what is for all intents and purposes a dictatorship. The KDP’s intelligence agency, known as Parastin, keeps tabs on dissident political activity and routinely kidnaps and jails critics of the regime. In 2005, Dr. Kamal Qadir was arrested for "insulting" Masoud Barzani, the KRG top honcho, jailed, and tortured. His "crime"? Exposing the rampant corruption which enriches the ruling party, and the Barzani family in particular. The KRG is essentially a criminal cartel, which hands out cash and privileges to its supporters – and outright repression to its opponents.
The Barzani dictatorship was greatly enhanced by the "liberation" of Iraq: in 2005, the Washington Post exposed the complicity of US occupation forces in the KRG’s systematic abduction and torture of political prisoners:
"Police and security units, forces led by Kurdish political parties and backed by the U.S. military, have abducted hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkmens in this intensely volatile city and spirited them to prisons in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, according to US and Iraqi officials, government documents and families of the victims.
"Seized off the streets of Kirkuk or in joint U.S.-Iraqi raids, the men have been transferred secretly and in violation of Iraqi law to prisons in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, sometimes with the knowledge of US forces. The detainees, including merchants, members of tribal families and soldiers, have often remained missing for months; some have been tortured, according to released prisoners and the Kirkuk police chief.
"A confidential State Department cable, obtained by The Washington Post and addressed to the White House, Pentagon and US Embassy in Baghdad, said the ‘extra-judicial detentions’ were part of a ‘concerted and widespread initiative’ by Kurdish political parties ‘to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner.’
"… The cable indicated that the problem extended to Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and the main city in the north, and regions near the Kurdish-controlled border with Turkey."
The systematic suppression of Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and other minorities is carried out by the KRG as a matter of course – and will doubtless increase as the fanatically nationalistic Kurds lay claim to Kirkuk, which they claim as the Kurdish "Jerusalem, and which is home to many non-Kurds.
The danger posed by the Kurds to the peace of the region lies in the fact that Kurdish nationalists envision a "Greater Kurdistan" encompassing territory presently occupied by Turkey (more than a third of the country), a good chunk of Syria, 20 percent of Iran, and even reaching into Armenia (!). “A greater Kurdistan is the dream of every Kurd. But for now we want to set up a state in this country,” says KDP member of Parliament Dr. Farsat Sofi.
"For now" – those are ominous words to Kurdistan’s neighbors, which greatly fear the explosive potential of restive native Kurdish populations seeking union with a newly-independent Kurdish state on their borders.
The fuse of Kurdish independence has been lit: it’s only a matter of time before the bomb goes off. And when it does, it will atomize the rest of the region, limning Iraq’s fate.
This suits the Kurds’ ally, Israel, just fine – because that was the plan all along. Atomize the Arab states, turn them into ineffectual statelets fighting each other, while Israel gobbles up the occupied territories and expels its Arab population. "Greater Israel" and "Greater Kurdistan" – these two projects are being accomplished in tandem, with the latter making the former much more likely.
Another benefit to Israel in an independent Kurdistan is the establishment of an Israeli base directly on Iran’s border: a base from which espionage, sabotage, and outright invasion can be launched. And the prospect of Kurdish independence represents a direct threat to the unity of Iran, which has its own potentially rebellious Kurdish minority to deal with.
While Washington formally adheres to its support for a united Iraq, and supposedly opposes Kurdish independence – while supporting autonomy – this position is becoming increasingly untenable because it is essentially a fiction. Kurdistan has been a de facto sovereign state since the establishment of the no-fly zone some fifteen years ago. The Obama administration’s implicit recognition of this fact-on-the-ground was underscored by the decision to bomb ISIS as soon as the soldiers of the Caliphate got too close to Erbil.
Yes, John Judis is right to say that oil is a factor, but this is just a portion of the truth. The larger truth encompasses both military and domestic political reasons – Washington wants Kurdistan as a possible launching site for a military campaign against Iran if such becomes (in their view) necessary. And then there are the politics of the matter.
Israel, for its part, is practically demanding independence for Kurdistan, and the Israel lobby in this country is beating the drums. Washington – not known for resisting Israeli demands – is slowly but surely caving in to the Israel lobby and abandoning its insistence on the unity of Iraq. The escalation of this abandonment was signaled by the President’s recent statement that the US military effort in Iraq isn’t just a bomb-and-go affair but "will take some time." Yes, it will take more than a few drone strikes to shield Kurdistan from ISIS. The Kurds – and, standing behind them, the Israelis – seem to have won the day in Washington, but just to make sure the Kurds have hired the well-connected Patton Boggs public relations firm to press its case for a prolonged American campaign, with a budget in the millions.
Deepening US military involvement in Iraq has little if anything to do with the plight of the Yazidis, whose own relations with the KRG have been problematic at best: this is a "humanitarian" pretext for the hiving off of Kurdistan from Iraq and the establishment of a base friendly to the US and Israel. It is a geopolitical maneuver that augurs a much greater conflict than the one we are seeing play out in Iraq at the moment. Militant Kurdish ultra-nationalism unleashed on the Middle East will prove a scourge for the entire region, one that could end in a war involving all the major players.
Washington and Tel Aviv are playing with fire – a fire, furthermore, that is being deliberately set. Arsonists are on the loose in the most volatile part of the world, and no one should be surprised by the subsequent conflagration.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.