Kurdish Delight

Peter Galbraith, like others before him, dwells at great length on these mistakes in his new book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. But not surprisingly, he adds little to this discussion since he did not have a front-row seat either reporting or making policy in post-Saddam Iraq. For the most part, he rounds up the usual footnotes–the same articles in the same major media publications and books that are now trotted out for every critique of the Iraq war. Where Galbraith did have a front-row seat, however, was as an advocate for Kurdish interests. And what is distinctive about his book is that these interests clearly constitute his No. 1 agenda. The End of Iraq is basically an argument for the breakup of the country, as a means of giving his Kurdish friends their long-deferred dream, a state of their own.

Galbraith doesn’t quite admit to this agenda, and in my view, that is the main problem with the book, which grew out of a series of long articles he wrote on the same theme for The New York Review of Books. He brings some important historical perspective to this argument: As an ambassador and official at the Dayton peace talks, he also had a first-hand view of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and he suggests that the dissolution of Iraq has the same kind of inevitability to it. Indeed, it will even be the most humane way out, he says, the only effective prophylactic against endless civil war.

But Galbraith’s pro-Kurdish sympathies suffuse the book, and it seems a little too pat that his solution to the problem of Iraq aligns perfectly with the Kurds’ longstanding national ambitions. These sympathies date back two decades to the mid-1980s, when, as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, working for Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Galbraith visited Iraq on a fact-finding mission and stumbled on the Anfal, Saddam Hussein’s military campaign to destroy rural life in Kurdistan as a means of exerting control. Then and later, he developed a special relationship with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the current Iraqi president, who called Galbraith in Washington three days after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to ask him whether it “would be a good time” to visit the United States. “If there ever was interest in the Kurds, it was now,” Galbraith says he advised him. “Of course you should come, I told him.” Even while he was serving as ambassador to Croatia in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, he was working as an activist for the Kurdish cause. After fighting erupted between the two main Kurdish factions, another Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, asked Saddam to send troops into his region when he is being driven out by Talabani’s forces. Galbraith says he phoned his Clinton administration colleagues from Zagreb to plead that Barzani’s invitation [to Saddam], “while regrettable,” should “not mean the end of Kurdish self-rule.”

Galbraith is all the things a passionate advocate should be: brave, dedicated, smart, and aggressive to a fault. What he is not, it seems to me, is altogether intellectually honest about whether his Kurdish ties have skewed his overall view of the Iraq situation. It is not that Galbraith makes any attempt to hide his work as an advisor to the Kurds. Instead he seems to practice a studied disingenuousness on this score. At one point, he writes at length about the central role he played in formulating the Kurdish constitution. “About three weeks after Saddam’s fall, I began discussions with the Kurdish leaders on the future of Kurdistan and what they might achieve in the new Iraq constitution,” Galbraith writes. He then describes drafting an extensive memo in which he said that Kurdistan “should take the initiative by writing its own constitution before the Iraqi constitutional process began,” so as to get the jump on autonomous rights, including its own self-defense force. “Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile to being part of Iraq,” he writes later. Astonishingly, he continues to lay claim to objectivity, saying that “my views on the future of Iraq, however, are not based on sentiment or friendship.” Nowhere does he forthrightly say he is working as an advocate for Kurdish interests, which in my view should disqualify him from writing a book that purports to be a dispassionate analysis of the Iraq problem.

The premise of the book is that Iraq will and must break up, which raises a question: If it was inevitable anyway, then how can you blame this outcome on the incompetence of the American occupation, which he details at great length? “Churchill considered the forced incorporation of the Kurds in Iraq as one of his biggest mistakes,” he concludes. “It is perhaps fitting that it has been undone by an American president who keeps a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office.” Churchill, Iraq, the whole future of the Mideast–it’s always all about the Kurds for Galbraith. But in reality, it’s not all about the Kurds–not even the future of Iraq.

Yes, the Kurds are natural objects of sympathy. Pragmatic, self-reliant, somewhat secular, they make natural allies for the United States. And yes, they’ve had a very bad century with their dreams betrayed repeatedly by U.S. policy-makers going back to Woodrow Wilson. And yes, the ethnic violence between Sunnis and Shiites has now gotten so bad that there’s also a pretty fair chance Iraq will ultimately break up into regions, or worse, fracture into a failed state ruled by tribes, warlords and militias.

No one seriously questions that Iraq is now fissuring, and that the American presence may be the only glue holding the country together. What is not clear is whether, if the country breaks up–even somewhat peacefully–the fracturing will simply stop at two or three regions, as Galbraith proposes. “You could have Iraq 1914,” a U.S. military analyst told me during a visit to Iraq in April. He was referring to the old Mesopotamia that was organized around three major cities, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, before the British created Iraq out of whole cloth in the aftermath of World War I. The analyst added: “But you could also have Somalia in the 1990s.” On the positive side, under the loose federalism created by the new constitution, there is still a possibility that the country could revert to the natural decentralization that once dominated Mesopotamia. As then-Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi told my colleagues at Newsweek a year ago, “The decentralized system worked here for thousands of years.” Mehdi suggested that Iraq could even “be like the Arab Emirates–each state would have its own investment policy, its own costs, a combination of different models.”

But none of these outcomes can be declared to be inevitable, even at this late stage, unless wishing makes them so. What observers like Galbraith–who draw a straight line from the history of a place to predicting its future–often miss are the new variables. And the biggest new variable in Iraq today is the U.S. presence, which is likely to continue for years. Indeed, it is ironic that Galbraith, who took part in the Dayton Peace Accords that have kept an ethnically and religiously riven Bosnia together–thanks to the presence of NATO troops–should discount the possibility that the same thing could happen in Iraq.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation