»  National Review Online

October 4th, 2005

  Free Kurdistan!

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Pretty much everyone by now agrees that Iraq is a mess. The lefties and the paleos have been saying so for ages, of course. It's all the fault of Bush/Wolfie/Chalabi/Sharon. It's all about oil/revenge (i.e. on behalf of Bush Sr.)/Israel/Halliburton. You know the lines.

We have now reached the stage, though, where the dank, smelly waters of despondency have risen from these perennial Sloughs of Despond (sorry — there is no avoiding rising-waters analogies in Hurricane Season) and are starting to drench the socks and chill the ankles of people who are normally much more upbeat. Even my neocon pals here at NR/NRO admit that Iraq's a mess, though they still believe we can turn it round. They are all channeling Earl Haig: "If we can just get our cavalry through their lines!" (Translation: "If we can just get the joys of bourgeois democracy into their heads!") Dream on, guys.

I am going to stand aloof from all this unseemly bickering and try to offer a constructive suggestion. After all, if you have ever attended one of those day-long Case Study brainstorming sessions you get by way of business/administrative/military training, you know that we are pretty much at the point where, after a series of increasingly painful silences, someone pipes up with: "We really need some new ideas here." Well, here is a new idea.

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This particular idea came to me in a flash. The flash occurred quite late on — I mean, three or four glasses of vin de table on — at a convivial dinner party, which itself came at the end of a day that had also included an extremely convivial lunch at Frère Jacques — which, for all you unsophisticated hayseeds out there in flyover country, is an agreeable little French restaurant on East 37th Street in Manhattan, serving a particularly delicious kir to warm you up for the products of their very ample and well-appointed wine cellar. Days thus filled are, I have found, more than usually conducive to late-evening flashes of brilliant insight. I almost think I might have proved the Riemann Hypothesis in the train going home, but, like Churchill, I fell asleep instead.

Well, anyway, there I was at the dinner table, tucking into my dessert, looking forward to the end-of-meal cigarette — I don't smoke, you understand, but in circumstances of overwhelming conviviality, I momentarily forget that — and listening to a chap across the table talking about the Kurds. The Kurds, he said, are our one success story in Iraq. They are running a pretty decent state, are ethnically solid, adhere to the sober, don't-let-it-take-over-your-life variant of Islam (as opposed to the glittery-eyed let's-take-over-the-world! style that is so popular among Iranians, Arabs, and British teenagers), and very pro-American. It is high time they got their own country, said the speaker. Why wouldn't we support that?

"Because it would tick off the Turks," I said. That seemed, and still seems, to me to be the correct answer. Turkey has a big population — bigger than Britain, bigger than France — and a fast-modernizing economy, with a GDP growth rate clipping along at eight percent. They are militarily formidable, with a grand warrior tradition and an impressive win-loss ratio in engagements across the modern era. Their nation is about as strategically located as a nation can be, peering out across Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Caucasus. They are Islamic, but without the craziness. Not a nation we should want to tick off.

Creating an independent Kurdistan would tick off the Turks big time. Around twenty percent of Turkey's population — say 14 million people — is Kurdish, concentrated in the east and southeast of the country, and Kurdish extremists waged a low-level guerilla war against the Turkish authorities all through the 1980s and 1990s. The number of dead is generally quoted as 30,000, which means, if correct, that this conflict was Northern Ireland in overall scale, with ten times the casualties in ten times the population (though across a somewhat shorter period).

We have already done some major ticking-off of the Turks. Back in 2003, while were were getting troops in place for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration announced that Turkey would let us move an army into Iraq from the north, through the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey. Unfortunately we made this announcement while the Turkish parliament was still debating whether to give us these transit rights. Offended by what they saw a a blow to the national honor, the Turks voted the transit rights down, and we had to do some major re-planning. They are still ticked off with us. For all that they profess the more unthreatening style of Islam, they are a proud, prickly people, and we are still infidels. There is a nagging feeling at the back of every Turk's mind that his country is entitled to more respect from the West than it ever gets — a feeling steadily nourished by the endless equivocation about Turkey's EU membership.

So declaring an independent Kurdistan that embraced Iraq's northern oil fields, according them full diplomatic recognition, arming them to the teeth, and then getting the heck out of there in the comforting knowledge that we have left at left one friendly power behind (and perhaps a couple of nice permanent bases), does not look like a very wise strategy. That's where I got my sudden flash of insight. Trianon, I thought: Trianon!

I have flaunted my Hungarophilia before on this site, and mentioned the fact that if you want to make a Hungarian clench his jaw and flush purple, you just have to say the word "Trianon." The Hungarians, you see, were spread in a sort of fuzzy inkblot all over east and southeast Europe before WW1. In the general reshuffling of borders following that war, the Hungarians hoped to get a nation of their own that included not only the solidly Hungarian core of this demographic inkblot, but the darker bits of the penumbra, too — the heavily Hungarian areas of what later became Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia.

That didn't happen. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon gave Hungarians the core area only as their nation, and they have been mad about this ever since. They are especially mad about Transylvania, the huge region "across the woods" (i.e. as seen from Hungary) that now forms northwest Romania, which has had a big Hungarian population since the Middle Ages — since before the Romanians arrived, Hungarians will tell you, but Romanians dispute this.

Well, when East European communism collapsed in 1989-90 and Hungarians took full control of their own affairs once again, there was a nationalistic faction in Hungary that wanted to seize the opportunity to avenge Trianon by invading Transylvania. Romania was in a hopeless mess at the time and did not look like a very formidable foe. (I don't think, in fact, that there is any historical instance of Romania ever having been a formidable foe to anybody.) The ancient territories might have been regained, and a new Greater Hungary established. Talpra Magyar!.

Mark Palmer, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary at the time, had to talk the Hungarians down off this ledge, which he did by pointing out that if they went to war against Romania, they could kiss viszontlátásra to their prospects for EU membership. This worked, and passions have cooled now. The Hungarian army busies itself with handing our condensed milk packets to kids in Angola, and Transylvanian Hungarians who are unhappy about being Romanian citizens can freely emigrate to Hungary, an option many of them have taken.

What has any of that got to do with Iraq? Well, look at the geography. Hungarians: a fuzzy inkblot in eastern Europe, with a solid ethnic core you could make a nation out of, and a demographic fringe scattered out among other peoples in neighboring states. No access to the sea. Fierce nationalists, linguistically isolated. (Hungarian is an Asiatic language, not a European one.) Kurds: a fuzzy inkblot in the Middle East, with a solid ethnic core you could make a nation out of, and a demographic fringe scattered out among other peoples in neighboring states. No access to the sea. Fierce nationalists, linguistically isolated. (Kurdish is an Indo-European language, not related to Turkish, Arabic, or the Caucasian family.)

So here's my suggestion. If we can't hope for a stable, democratic, and friendly Iraq, let's settle for a stable, democratic and friendly Kurdistan, carved out of Iraqi territory. To avoid making the Turks mad, let's sell it to them as a Hungarian model, a Trianon — but with the following 70 years of resentment short-circuited by concessions, diplomacy, and greenbacks. "Sure, there are lots of Kurds in eastern Turkey. There are lots of Hungarians in northwest Romania. Those who want to be good Romanian citizens are free so to be. Those who don't, can emigrate to Hungary. We shall impress on the Kurds that this is the only model for their statehood that we will support; that if they try to grab Turkish territory, we'll take Turkey's side; if they try to stir up Turkey's Kurds, likewise; and heck, we'll help them pay for resettlement of any Kurds who want to emigrate from Turkey to Kurdistan."

This would, it is true, leave the issue of the Sunnis and the Shias unresolved. A lot of us have come to the conclusion, though, that that issue is actually not resolvable, except via a civil war which may already be under way. With an independent Kurdistan armed, recognized, guaranteed, and (one hopes) profoundly grateful, we'd at least have accomplished some of what we set out to do in Iraq. We would, in fact, have established a democracy in the Middle East — one that actually had some chance of surviving more than a week after our pullout. Can anybody tell me why we should not do this?