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The Plight of the Iraqi Kurds Poses a Difficult U.S. Foreign Policy Challenge

John Glaser and Christopher A. Preble

Following the Iraqi army’s move into the Kurdish-held city
of Kirkuk in northern Iraq this week, some have argued forcefully
that the United States should intervene to protect the Kurds and
even aid in their aspirations for an independent state. A Wall Street Journal editorial warns
that abandoning the Kurds “would damage America’s
credibility,” and undermine President Trump’s
“ability to enlist allies against Iran’s expansion
across the Middle East.”

We fully appreciate the injustices, abuse and denial of basic
political rights the Kurds have endured for more than a century.
The Kurds have also been reliable allies to U.S. troops in the
region in many ways. In the abstract, the Kurds deserve independence and self-determination, and we
hope they achieve something that satisfies them in the end.

But U.S. foreign policy can’t be constructed in the abstract. It
must take account of the world as it is, and acknowledge the
critical role that power still plays in global politics. In that
context, the question of whether the United States should, as a
matter of policy, support Kurdish independence is devilishly
complicated.

Despite good intentions,
the United States should not pursue high-minded objectives that are
peripheral to national security.

First, there is the strategic question of what kind of impact
Kurdish independence would have. It would of course infuriate the
Turks, who have long fought against Kurdish secession. A handful of
Kurds responded to Ankara’s intransigence with violence, waging a
protracted terrorism campaign that has claimed more than forty
thousand livesin thirty years, according to conservative estimates.
U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained for years, and appear to
be worsening. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has systematically stifled
civil liberties in his country, and has defied U.S. policy in Syria
and Iraq. Still, Turkey is a NATO member, and hosts U.S. troops at
major facilities such as the Incirlik Air Base. Defying Erdo?an by
supporting Kurdish independence may gain us a new and fragile ally,
but only at the expense of losing a mature and relatively powerful
one.

Then there is Iraq. If the country fractures in two, or more, that could further
enhance Iranian influence in Baghdad and the rest of
Shiite-dominated Iraq—something U.S. policy has consistently
resisted. It would also ruin any hope for an overall reduction in
violence in Iraq. The prospective breakup of states from
secessionist movements tends to be destabilizing; governments
generally don’t like to forfeit territory.

Peaceful separations—think Czechoslovakia separating into
the Czech and Slovak republics, for example—are the
exceptions, not the norm. When a group or region attempts to secede
from the mother country, years of fighting and insurgency are the
likely consequence. Indeed, the majority of conflicts since the end
of World War II have involved states fighting their own aspiring
statelets, not resistance to foreign aggression.

What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy and the role we
ought to play in the world? Adopting an explicit policy of support
for Kurdish independence would seem to obligate Americans—for
the sake of moral consistency—to carry the banner for other
secessionist movements, from Taiwan and Tibet in China to the
Armenians in Azerbaijan, from the Raizal people in Colombia to the
Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh, and, of course, the Catalans in
Spain. Where to draw the line? There are over five hundred distinct
languages and perhaps as many as five thousand distinct ethnic
groups in the world. Affording the right to self-determination for
all such peoples, and committing the United States to defend their
rights if challenged, would be an impossible and ruinously costly
task.

The nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill
anticipated this problem. Though he believed in
the principle of self-determination, he advised against foreign
intervention on behalf of peoples attempting to throw off the yoke
of an oppressive or unrepresentative government. Though motivated
by the noblest of impulses, such intervention would likely
fail—proving costly to the intervener, and delivering only
temporary liberty for the prospective beneficiaries of such
intervention.

In short, open support for Kurdish independence would, at a
minimum, greatly complicate U.S. foreign policy, and might set us
on the path to even more military intervention and post-conflict
nation-building. All this in the service of high-minded objectives
that are, nevertheless, peripheral to our own national
security.

That doesn’t mean the United States shouldn’t use its influence
to prevent the ruthless crushing of the Kurdish people, by Baghdad,
Ankara or anyone else. The Trump administration should use the
leverage it has with those capitals to encourage them to approach
the Kurdish question cautiously, non-violently and through
negotiation. And when the Turkish and Iraqi governments stray from
that path, verbal criticism is in order.

Beyond that, however, there is a serious risk that we’ll get
ourselves—and the Kurds—into more trouble.

John Glaser is
the director of foreign policy studies, and Christopher
Preble
is the vice president for defense and foreign policy
studies, at the Cato Institute.