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Disaster seemingly will attend the power transition in Iraq. Official Washington has already reverted to its ancient traditions, in particular the sacrificial rite of assigning blame. Within the George W. Bush camp, one hears that it was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s fault for appointing L Paul Bremer as civil administrator in Iraq, or Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s fault for slighting the professional military, or National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s fault for not coordinating between the hostile camps on either side of the Potomac.
It is a queer sort of disaster, to be sure. World stock markets are rising, the price of oil is falling, and the exchange rate of the dollar barely flutters in the crosswinds. Is it possible that markets have judged matters better than the pundits? Perhaps it is no disaster at all, except for the ideologues who argued that America’s political model could be exported and assembled in Iraq like so much prefabricated housing. A generation ago, American satirist Walter Kelly amended Commodore Perry’s 1813 dispatch “We have met the enemy and he is ours” to read, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
By the same token, one might say to the peoples of Mesopotamia: “You have met the enemy, and he is you.” Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd have one thing in common: they all eschew the American “melting pot” model of democracy. They are determined to pursue their own tragic destinies instead.
Last year, when American forces confounded the skeptics and swept northward to Baghdad, I warned that it was no triumph (George W. Bush, tragic character,” Nov 25, 2003). Neither does the present impasse make a disaster. Despite American policy, and despite America’s enemies, the tragedy will unfold at its own pace. Iraq was not to be saved in the first place (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance? Dec 23, 2003). America once produced leaders who recognized tragedy when it confronted them; Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address portrayed the terrible Civil War of 1861-1865 as redress for the sin of slavery. Lincoln did not expect a favorable reception for his view, and he was right. Although the words of the inaugural are carved on the wall of Lincoln’s memorial, they are as obscure to the Washingtonians of today as hieroglyphs to sightseers in Egypt.
America’s 42nd president cannot grasp that Americans comprise a tiny minority who fled the tragedy of the nations. Those who remained in the old country chose a tragic destiny. “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them,” Lincoln wrote shortly after his second inaugural. In full denial, the Bush cabinet remains captive to the fixed idea of Middle Eastern democracy. Bush’s critics spin silly conspiracy theories about America’s “real” intentions (grabbing oilfields, turning Israel into a regional superpower, and so forth).
The kingpin of conspiracy theorists, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, sees an Israeli conspiracy behind the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. In his dispatch of June 28, Hersh quoted a Turkish official: “From Mexico to Russia, everybody will claim that the United States had a secret agenda in Iraq: you came there to break up Iraq.” Why should Washington care what Mexico thinks? And why should Russia object to making the Turks miserable, especially if it tightens the vice around the rebel Chechnyans?
One should learn more about the Kurds before portraying them as puppets in anyone’s plot. If Aeschylus had scripted the tragedy of peoples rather than heroes, the Kurds would have been at the top of his list. In 1915, the “Young Turk” Ottoman government enlisted Kurds to exterminate a million and a half Armenians during 1915-1923. More Armenians died at Kurdish than Turkish hands. As their reward, the Turkish government allowed Kurds to resettle the portion of Eastern Anatolia then known as Western Armenia, that is, after killing or driving out the entire Armenian population. That is why Kurds now comprise a majority of the inhabitants of the former western Armenia, and pose a continuing strategic threat to Turkey. I do not mean to fault the Kurds; the neutral Swiss spent half a millennium earning their keep as Europe’s mercenaries. Small peoples do not survive by being squeamish.
One is tempted to think, “If the Kurds killed Armenians for land in Eastern Anatolia, a fortiori they will kill Arabs for oil in Mosul.” But the Kurds are fighting for something much greater, namely their slim chance of escaping the great extinction of the peoples. “Unlike animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them,” I wrote on August 31, 2001, just before the suicide attacks on New York and Washington (Internet stocks and the failure of youth culture.) “Frequently, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their way of life. Native Americans often chose to fight to the point of their own extinction rather than accept assimilation, because assimilation implied abandoning both their past and their future. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.”
Tara Welat, a prominent Kurdish nationalist, cited my essay last April 7 in a report on the Kurdish website www.kurdmedia.com: “There are competing claims concerning the will of oppressed nations to survive. One view holds that by reason of their oppression, peoples who are under constant pressure to assimilate eventually lose their will to survive as a distinct people. They may live on a physical existence, but eventually, they can no longer defend what makes them unique. For evidence, contenders of such a view cite the fact that in the last century 2,000 distinct ethnic groups have disappeared. The other view maintains that people not only seek progeny but progeny who remember them and to this end, humans will fight to the bitter end to defend their way of life and to resist assimilation.”
Welat adds, “… While as a whole, the Kurdish people have survived, for some Kurds, the temptation of assimilation has been all too powerful … There are also other ideologies – aside from the nationalist ideologies imposed on the Kurds by their colonizers – namely Islam and socialism, which the Kurds have been willing to accept, mostly at the expense of their Kurdish identity … I believe that there is among the Kurds, enough people who love freedom for itself and who will struggle for it obstinately until the Kurds enjoy self-rule.”
Welat makes clear why American policy must fail. The Kurds understand from the inside, as it were, precisely what America is about, and will have none of it: “As more and more countries become ‘melting pots’, where cultures and identities are merged into a ‘mosaic’, attempts to assimilate the Kurds will increasingly come under the guise of democracy. Just as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 upon his visit to America, we can confidently claim that ‘a great democratic revolution is taking place among us’. This revolution has swept through America and the West and it is now bursting through the gates of the Middle East.”
Welat adds, “The argument of democracy tailored by the ruling regimes to address the Kurds goes something like this: Why do you ask for special rights or autonomy (or heaven forbid, independence) when we can live as equals and brothers, with full freedoms, under one (centralized) democratic state … We must question a conception of democracy that is limited to creating a centralized state and which will ultimately push for the homogeneity of its citizens.”
America will not succeed in assimilating the Kurds; a people who consider Islam yet another foreign ideology imposed on them will not worship de Tocqueville. As its policy crumbles in the region, the Bush administration will ally with such forces as the Kurds – and the tragedy will proceed to its next act.