Technology with attitude

Idealpolitik

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Michael J. Totten, fresh from his excursion into Kurdish Iraq, reports that, while the Kurds there may be paying lip service to Iraq, their hearts are for independence. One of the reasons they don’t claim it outright, Michael writes, is they want to achieve it fairly and honestly — and with a legitimate claim to their entire turf. But make no mistake, he warns; they do not think of themselves as part of the historical accident we call Iraq:

If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the new post-imperial and post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. They call the W.C. (the “water closet,� i.e. the toilet) “Winston Churchill.� Several times when my translator needed a bathroom break he said “I need to use the Winston Churchill.�

Ouch.

When I read all this, it reminds me why I remain committed to the Wilsonian idealism of the neo-conservatives, despite the manifest bungling in practical execution, and opposed to the chilly realpolitik that so many on the left and right (and some in the Bush Administration) want America to employ as its international diplomacy.

Realpolitik was what the Soviets did better than us during the 1960s and ’70s. But it wasn’t what won the Cold War. If you want to see a working American foreign policy driven by realpolitik, it never was done better than under Nixon and Kissinger. Do the right and the left really want to go back to the days of CIA coups and abandoned allies? Is our Kurdish policy now not more in line with America’s virtues than it was 25 years ago?

In 1972, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah of Iran devised a plan to weaken Soviet-backed Iraq by supporting a Kurdish insurgency in the country’s north. Kurds knew that with American help they could care out an autonomous region and control the oilfields. Backed by money and arms from the CIA and the Shah, the peshmerga took to the field, but we never gave them enough to win outright. U.S. allies Turkey and Iran, fearful of their own Kurdish minorities, never would have accepted a genuine autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. We used them, cynically.

It was realpolitik at its most adept. The U.S. played the Kurdish card effectively to sap the strength of a Soviet ally in the Cold War. After the Algiers Agreement of March 1975 gave Iran what it wanted in a border dispute with Iraq, the Shah and the U.S. cut off aid to the Kurds. Iraq promptly launched a devastating attack which overpowered the peshmerga, exterminated the Kurds by whole towns, inaugurated the period of Baathish ethnic cleansing, and drove tens of thousands of Kurds into refugee camps.

The U.S. refused to accept them as assylum-seekers. This is where I met them first, in Nuremberg in 1978 and ’79, where the former peshmerga were trying to get black market U.S. passports in nearby Fürth, which, for some reason, was a center of such activity then. They were still enthusiastic about America, in spite of the betrayal. They were warm and generous. It was back then in the bars of Nuremberg in the Ford era, not as a reaction to 9/11, that I formed an affinity for the Kurdish cause and a disgust of how we betrayed them. Back then, it seemed a position consistent with liberal ideology and Democratic Party politics. I haven’t changed my loyalty since then, but it seems the ideology and the party have.

New York Congressman Otis Pike led a Congressional investigation of CIA activities that uncovered the perfidy of the Americans to the Kurds. Kissinger dismissed it with the ultimate realpolitik quip: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

The betrayal forms a chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ furious indictment of Henry Kissinger, but only a brief one, because, as Hitchens writes, though the Nixon Administrations actions here show “a callous indifference to human life and human rights, … they fall into the category of depraved realpolitik and do not seem to have violated any known law.”

Now, I understand the uses and importance of realpolitik. It can be done effectively, as it has been occasionally in U.S. history, for instance by Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. And liberal idealism can make a dreadful lodestar in international relations, as it was for Franklin Roosevelt. Yet on the whole, I confess, I prefer my country when it holds its ideals and its virtues slightly higher than its naked self-interest.