The Exceptionally Weak Case for Kurdistan
Shlomo Ben-Ami urges the Trump administration to back Kurdish independence. His reasoning seems especially weak here:
As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving: an independent Kurdistan could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western forces in the Middle East.
Applying “the experience in Yugoslavia” to other parts of the world is wrongheaded in a few ways. For one thing, the “experience in Yugoslavia” shows that the government that is losing control of territory will violently oppose secessionist movements. It may eventually lose, but not before hundreds of thousands of people have died and many more have been forced to flee. For another, ethnic and religious cleavages don’t simply “explode.” They are usually ignited on purpose by demagogues that want to exploit those cleavages to their advantage. Ben-Ami thinks the U.S. should help set off the explosion in this case. That is typical of Western advocates of partition-as-panacea, but it is irresponsible and dangerous.
Ben-Ami asserts that “Iraq is effectively an Iranian trusteeship, not a US ally.” That is an exaggeration, but if it were true that would make the case for an independent Kurdistan even weaker. If Iraq were little more than an “Iranian trusteeship,” do you suppose Iran would accept having a large part of its territory to be turned into a new state? No, they would back the Iraqi government in its efforts to retain that territory. Since Ben-Ami frames the creation of Kurdistan as an explicitly anti-Iranian maneuver, that suggests that Iranian hostility to the new state would be even more likely.
Backing the creation of a new state at the expense of another will inevitably produce more violence and upheaval, and when that conflict is defined primarily in ethnic or religious terms that violence will take the form of massacres and driving people from their homes. What Ben-Ami fails to mention is that the “path to peace” brought about through separation typically involves a great deal of bloodletting and forcible expulsion of populations. Even when this “works” as intended, it usually creates dysfunctional statelets that are held hostage by corrupt and abusive leaders.
The KRG is already notoriously corrupt and its leaders semi-authoritarian at best, so the idea that it would become a “sustainable democracy” is little more than wishful thinking. Regardless, U.S. policy in Iraq over the last fourteen years should prove that the U.S. has neither the competence nor the necessary political influence to secure an independent Kurdistan without causing a new destabilizing conflict. The U.S. shouldn’t be in the business of helping to carve up existing states, and in general partition is a terrible “solution” that should be attempted only as an absolute last resort.