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Tilting at Windmills

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June 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE SCION....Laura Rozen reports in the current issue of the Monthly that Washington DC is now home to yet another smiling Iraqi with a distinct agenda, a fluent command of English, and strong connections. This time it's Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani:

Talabani is hardly the first cosmopolitan, culturally dexterous representative of a foreign interest to find his cause in vogue in the halls of American government. The Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi was also a charismatic, effective Washington advocate, who systematically persuaded influential constituencies, and ultimately the Bush administration, to lend the U.S. Army to his longtime struggle against Saddam Hussein. But Qubad is different. He's of a younger generation, more pragmatic than idealistic, less enmeshed in neoconservative Republican politics and with less of the seductive con-man qualities of the old master. "We have friends on the Democratic and Republican sides," Talabani says. "It is not our game to play American politics. Chalabi did that and failed. We are not taking sides."

Talabani's agenda? Keep the Americans in Iraq, ensure that the promised elections in oil-rich Kirkuk are held on time, and sell Kurdistan as Iraq's great success story to anyone who will listen. Read the whole thing for more.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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Very interesting profile. I wonder if Kurdistan could be the keystone to a politically-palatable Democratic approach to Iraq? Don't abandon Iraq completely, but leave an airborne brigade and some airpower in bases in rural Kurdistan. The mission would be:
1. Support our Kurdish allies
2. Keep them from threatening Turkey
3. Keeping the Sunni-Kurdish conflict from breaking out into total war.
4. Providing special-ops with a local base from which to chase any Al Qaeda
5. Act as an over-the-horizon force to quench incipient Sunni-Shiite genocide

Certainly American troop deaths would decrease enormously if we did this.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 1:42 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not so sanguine about the "hide out in Kurdistan" solution. US soldiers will be an insurgent target no matter where they are stationed in Iraq.

Posted by: Disputo on June 8, 2007 at 1:59 AM | PERMALINK

A formal alliance with Kurds would be troublesome. Turkey is our NATO ally and hosts a strategically important air base. It is also important to remember our traditional strategic reliance on Turkey with Russia acting up.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

As a Turkish official was quoted in the NYT on Thursday:

“Now the U.S. has to choose. Turkish people or Kurdish people.”
Posted by: Disputo on June 8, 2007 at 2:24 AM | PERMALINK

A rural base in Kurdistan would be a thousand-times safer than urban outposts in Baghdad or the like. Imagine the Green zone surrounded by treeless landscape surrounded by Kurds (who are our friends - really our only friends in the country). Making Turkey happy is a major point of the proposal: if the Kurds feel secure, they're less likely to stage raids into Turkey, and discouraging such raids will make Turkey happy. Nothing says we can't support the Kurds and be friends with Turkey at the same time; that was essentially the situation before the invasion, after all.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 2:24 AM | PERMALINK

if the Kurds feel secure, they're less likely to stage raids into Turkey

Oh, you gotta be kidding me.

The PKK et al doesn't give a shit about security. They want greater Kurdistan. If the US begins to stand directly in their way with soldiers on the ground, guess who becomes PKK targets?

Posted by: Disputo on June 8, 2007 at 2:30 AM | PERMALINK

Kurdistan is great. It should be supported hugely. Among other things, it would show Europeans what Turkey is like. In Europe, the Czechs and Slovaks separated peacefully. If Turkey goes off its nutter about Kurdistan, then it isn't European by anyone's measurement.

Posted by: Bob M on June 8, 2007 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

"In Europe, the Czechs and Slovaks separated peacefully."

On the other hand, that Yugoslavia thing, not so good.

Posted by: Jose Padilla on June 8, 2007 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

"Chalabi did that and failed"
Except for those regime change and oil ministry things, I guess.

Posted by: david on June 8, 2007 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Turkey will never get into the EU until it gives its Kurds self-determination. I think that an independent Kurdistan is a viable option in the region, but since we have fools in every foreign ministry in the world worshipping incomprehensible borders, there will never be any pressure on Turkey to consider new borders.

Posted by: freelunch on June 8, 2007 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't "Kurdistan" still just a label for the regional government of northern Iraq? The new Iraqi Constitution says so.

Seems like posters here consider it to be much more of an officially recognized autonomous and ethnic geopolitical entity.

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on June 8, 2007 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

Posters are acting like I'm proposing something new for the US vis-a-vis the Kurds. In fact we already have a few thousand troops posted in Kurdistan, and a strong working relationship with their regional government. The only changes I am suggesting that we make are twofold: one, that a small force, say two bases of a brigade each, be our only significant land presence in Iraq - no troops based anywhere else. Second, that we give those troops a well-defined mission, organized around something like the five principles I spelled out above.

Let me be clear: their mission with respect to Kurdistan and Turkey will be to serve as peacekeepers; a regular patrol of the border may even be necessary. What do you think is more likely to cause problems on Iraq's northern border: NO American troops there? Or an American force, directed by a government that has relatively friendly ties with both Turkey and the Kurds? I mean if we leave, it will just degenerate there into something very ugly.

At the same time, this would also be our presence in Iraq. And thus, to the extent that we have any role to play in the coming Sunni-Shiite mess, it is a role we can play without having American troops stationed permanently in between two sides - or, I shoud say, between the four or five different sides.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

"Chalabi did that and failed"
Except for those regime change and oil ministry things, I guess.

He got regime change, but given that regime change was a means to the real goal of a new stable regime with him at the head he can't consider the current situation a success. He's probably happier with the outcome than the US should be, but that's a pretty low bar.

Posted by: just sayin on June 8, 2007 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

He doesn't sound so bad, and we should support the Kurds. BTW, what ever happened to Chalabi?

Posted by: !!! on June 8, 2007 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Iraqis who collaborate with foreign invaders are traitors. I doubt Qubad has much credibility with patriotic Iraqis.

Qubad!

Posted by: Brojo on June 8, 2007 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

lampwick: What do you think is more likely to cause problems on Iraq's northern border: NO American troops there? Or an American force, directed by a government that has relatively friendly ties with both Turkey and the Kurds? I mean if we leave, it will just degenerate there into something very ugly.

This presumes that America currently has a government that has relatively friendly ties with both Turkey and the Kurds or, even if so, that it would continue that way.

That is a very high bar for this administration to meet and I doubt Bush can jump that high.

In any event, there are numerous areas around the world in which the presence of American troops would result in a better situation locally than that which currently exists or which would keep a currently acceptable situation from sprialing out-of-control.

In and of itself, this is not a sufficent reason to put American troops in harm's way, especially when it is clear in the larger sense of things that their presence is causing far more long-term damage than any short-term benefit being produced, either for the local or for the US.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

The Kurdistan proposal is a plan for the Democrats to run on and implement; of course I don't dream for a minute that Bush would ever try to implement it. For it entails pulling out all but about 10,000 troops from the country.

Again, we're not putting American troops in harms way in the sense of inserting them; we're already in Kurdistan, our commanders there already have ties with local leaders. All we're doing is removing our troops from Sunni and Shiite areas of Iraq, and giving the troops that remain in Kurdistan an important mission.

In most of Iraq our military currently has no ability to force, lead, or otherwise generate improvements to the situation. 'Training' the Iraqi army just creates better armed militants, 'sweeping' for Al Qaeda is a chasing of wild geese, and 'policing' areas does nothing but generate ephemeral security at a very high cost in blood. So all of the American forces in Shiite and Sunni Iraq should be removed ASAP.

Nevertheless, there is a job that we can do, and should. And that is to prevent the onset wars and catastrophes that will make the current situation in Iraq look like the Golden Age. Large-scale genocide of Shiites and Sunnis or Kurds and Sunnis is one of these; civil war involving not just neighborhood violence but standing armies is another of these; and a war between Turkey and the PKK (the Kurdish rebel movement) is a third.

Keeping a force on the ground in secure bases in Kurdistan will enable us to forestall such disasters.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick: All we're doing is removing our troops from Sunni and Shiite areas of Iraq, and giving the troops that remain in Kurdistan an important mission.

I know you are trying hard to put a good face on this plan and I'm willing to accept that it is in good faith, but IMO this plan just provides a concentrated target for Islamic extremists and insurgents and looses the ones fighting Americans in Sunni and Shiite areas to concentrate on the remaining Americans or even the Kurds themselves, while inviting the rebel Kurds to view Americans as preventing them from achieving their goals of freeing the Turkish Kurds from domination.

While it is incumbent on America and the UN to interject themselves into areas where active genocide is ongoing (something we are not doing with any effect at all, anywhere), we cannot police every little messy scrap around the globe.

If so, there are plenty of other targets that do not invoke the same issues as interference in the Middle East does.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

I am non expert on middle-eastern relations, but I did live in Turkey for three years as an adult and as a teenager, I lived in pre-revolutionary Iran for two more, and I was paying attention to the world around me, not simply walled off in a mini-merica, munching pizza on base.

Neither of those countries will abide the Kurds achieving any more autonomy than they currently enjoy. The Kurds are not pure and holy by the way - they seem to have a penchant for genocide in Ninevah, home to the Assyrian Christians, and they launch terrorist attacks against Turkey and Iran from bases in the Kurdish region.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick: Keeping a force on the ground in secure bases in Kurdistan will enable us to forestall such disasters.

There are many wars, and thus "disasters" in your terminology, around the world that the US is not forestalling.

Make your argument why forestalling a Turkey-Kurdish war is more important.

Make your argument as to why the Kurds are worthy of our spilled blood to protect, more worthy than other people being slaughtered in wars that we are not intervening in.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

BGRS - I don't think we should be supporting giving the Kurds any more autonomy than they currently enjoy. An American presence would put a damper on Kurdish nationalism, in the same way that American presence among favorably disposed people who actually welcome us has always served to encourage a more internationalist, less nationalist outlook. No they're not saints - witness the horrible stoning of that young girl - but by the standards of the Middle East, they are better than most; comparable to Israel, I would say.

As for Americans becoming targets in Kurdistan, that's just laughable. Guess how many Americans stationed in Kurdistan since the war began have been killed? Ready for the answer: 0. As in zero.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/16/60minutes/main2486679.shtml

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Anon - Because as much as we would like to wash our hands of every deed done by American under the Bush regime, we simply cannot. Who was it who said 'You break it, it's yours' about Iraq? Powell, I think? In any event, Bush has left us this mess. And unlike, say, in Darfur, any genocide or full-scale war that occurs in Iraq is ultimately our fault. So we have an obligation to forestall it if we can. You speak as if all our troops were already withdrawn from Iraq, and it was a debate about 'injecting' them into the country. The fact is that our troops are already there, and what I'm talking about is the best way to withdraw them.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

That is true. But keep in mind that that can change in a heartbeat. One enters a deal with the devil with the smell of sulfur thick in the air to serve as a warning. Just remember the story of the frog and the scorpion.

I don't make policy, but if I did and someone brought me a plan that relied on the Kurds, I would say "Bring me another plan."

I don't have one, mind you. But I would never count on the Kurds.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Talkingpointsmemo: Prez adds nine new lawyers to the White House Counsel's staff.

You don't lawyer up unless you did something wrong, at least according to conservatives, so how will they rationalize this action by Bush?

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

BGRS - I'm not suggesting we "rely" on the Kurds; I'm suggesting we convince them to rely on us, for their military security. If they do so, it will allow us to help them professionalize the Peshmerga, and weaken support for the PKK. Another carrot we can wave in their faces is the promise of economic ties in return for good behavior.

Anyway, that's my plan for Iraq. What's yours?

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Anonymous - I recall hearing a while back that they were hiring up the good lawyers to take them out of play as special prosecutors and such. Can't remember where I saw that. Might have been in tin-foil hat country. Anyone else remember seeing anything like that?

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Lamp, your naivety is charming. Yes, there have been no deaths of US soldiers in Kurdistan because (1) there are hardly any US soldiers in Kurdistan, and (2) the few that are there have not gotten in the way of Kurdish nationalism. You propose to drastically change both of those items. You propose to bring Baghdad to Kurdistan.

Posted by: Disputo on June 8, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Why did the White House Counsel's staff just hire nine new lawyers? Because Regent U. Law School just had their graduation.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Why do the commenters limit us to choosing a side? I know America has been out of the business of conciliation for over six years now, but the folks who know how to do it are still around; they're called, quaintly, "Democrats." The sooner we have regime change in America, the sooner America can resume its role as assertive conciliator, rather than armorer, of antagonists. That means persuading both sides that their interests lie in compromise, which is clearly the case between the Turks and the Kurds.

Posted by: RonG on June 8, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Anyway, that's my plan for Iraq. What's yours?

See my comment at 12:51

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

As a Turkish official was quoted in the NYT on Thursday:

“Now the U.S. has to choose. Turkish people or Kurdish people.”

Posted by: Disputo

But Monty, who's behind door number 3?

The Turks desire to enter the EU is oodles (sorry for the jargon) more important to its future than NATO membership and our "wonderful" alliance with the heirs of Ataturk. I think they need to clean up their act rather than making idle threats against the U.S.

Between the Armenians and the Kurds, the Turks have a whole lot of baggage. They are the ones who need to choose - do they want to be part of the EU or remain in political and economic limbo?

Posted by: JeffII on June 8, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, I have read a white paper recently that has some pretty good ideas. Here is a link to a summary of the 77 page report.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 8, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick: Because as much as we would like to wash our hands of every deed done by American under the Bush regime, we simply cannot. Who was it who said 'You break it, it's yours' about Iraq? Powell, I think? In any event, Bush has left us this mess. And unlike, say, in Darfur, any genocide or full-scale war that occurs in Iraq is ultimately our fault.

I'm pretty sure one can trace the genocide in Darfur back to American policy, so I suspect we broke that one too.

But our soldiers and most Americans didn't break Iraq - Bush did.

Moreover, unlike a vase, the Iraqis have self-will and the ability to fix their own mess, something they have no incentive to do while American troops remain; indeed, the presence of American troops is likely an incentive to keep the country chaotic, since the Iraqis currently responsible for such control know they will never survive an American withdrawal.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

it will allow us to help them professionalize the Peshmerga, and weaken support for the PKK

The US fomenting another civil war in Northern Iraq will not help anyone, especially the Kurds. But it does resemble the Palestinian Solution the US used to pit Iraqi Sunnis against Iraqi Shiites to create a terror society, so it may very well be used against the Kurds. They have oil and a traitor in the halls of the empire willing to sell them out, so they are in extreme danger.

Posted by: Brojo on June 8, 2007 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Besides, Powell has already demonstrated time and again that he is only slightly less idiotic than Bush.

I have no faith in anything he has to say anymore.

He should have resigned the moment it became clear that Bush had no plans for Iraq beyond gaining revenge for his father and that was the moment Bush decided to invade before the UN inspectors had finished and then rejected Powell's post-war planning.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

The 'broken vase' part of Iraq is mainly the Shiite and Sunni provinces. I agree we should withdraw from there, because that's the only way they will 'fix' themselves. But there is always the risk of large-scale genocide there; that is something we can stop, by intervening from afar. Just as we should have in Rwanda, and as we should have in Darfur, and could have, if we weren't tied down in Iraq.

Brojo isn't paying any attention to what I've written. There is no civil war in Northern Iraq right now, nor is there a war between the Kurds and the Turks. If we abandon the Kurds, both of these things are likely to happen. If we maintain a presence among the Kurds, we can prevent this. Preventing a civil war is the opposite of 'fomenting' one.

Posted by: lampwick on June 8, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick: If we maintain a presence among the Kurds, we can prevent this.

Hope springs eternal.

Posted by: anonymous on June 8, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick, you stated you want the US to choose sides with one of the Kurdish political factions and diminish the power of the other faction. I think that will create civil war in Kurdistan.

Perhaps the US can kill the people of Halabja for whichever faction they choose to support. That is what your geopolitical gamesmanship will result in, just like Reagan's did. I do not think that is in the best interests of the Kurds or me or America. I read your comments and think your great game playing with other nations and ethnic groups is indicative of the problem US citizens have with the world. The world is not America's oyster. The best way to deal with the crimes the US has committed in Iraq is to leave, prosecute our leaders for war crimes and pay repartions to all Iraqi groups, not create more crimes by pitting more factions against each other.

Posted by: Brojo on June 8, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK
"It is not our game to play American politics. Chalabi did that and failed. We are not taking sides."

Translation: Unlike Chalabi (but like, e.g., AIPAC), Talabani realizes its good to have Republicans and Democrats in his pocket.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 8, 2007 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK
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