The slaughter in Iraq of Shi'is and Kurds sickens me, but I've reluctantly concluded that President Bush is basically right not to intervene on their behalf.
It's obvious why we should want to help the Kurds. Not only could the U.S. military easily stop the massacre of civilians but Mr. Bush has on several occasions encouraged the Iraqi people to remove Saddam Hussein from office. The Voice of Free Iraq, a clandestine radio station probably sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency, often reinforced this message. "We are with you," it told would-be revolutionaries, "in every heartbeat, in all your feelings, and in every move you make." To make matters worse, American promises to shoot down Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft were not carried out.
There is no denying that the U.S. government has incurred some moral responsibility to aid the anti-Saddam forces. Nonetheless, the interests of both Americans and the people in the region are in the long term best served by forbearance.
To begin with, that American moral responsibility is limited. The U.S. government all along emphasized that it would not determine Iraq's future. Coming just weeks after tens of thousands of sorties against Iraqi targets, this statement has an admittedly peculiar ring. But, with the exception of some ill-advised (and off-the-cuff) remarks by President Bush, Washington always limited the goals of Operation Desert Storm to Kuwait; it specifically excluded Iraq.
If the start of hostilities was announced by a rousing "The liberation of Kuwait has begun," the end came within hours after Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. More than that, as Secretary of State James A. Baker III has pointed out, U.S. officials "repeated over and over again that the removal of Saddam Husayn was neither a military nor a political objective." By way of proof, he offered journalists personally to "go back and get you the transcripts."
It sounds romantic, but watch out. Like the Israelis in southern Lebanon nine years ago, American troops would find themselves quickly hated, with Shi'is taking up suicide bombing, Kurds resuming their rebellion, and the Syrian and Iranian governments plotting new ways to sabotage American rule. Staying in place would become too painful, leaving too humiliating. Saddam in power may well be less dreadful than American occupation.
Alternatively, there is the danger of Iraq being dismembered. As Turkish president Turgut Özal rightly observed, this would lead to "incalculable turmoil." The world economy needs a reasonably strong Iraq to balance Iran and assure the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Were Iraqi power to disappear, Iran would likely become the regional hegemon, rationing oil according to its whims. Iraq's dissolution also raises the prospect of the Iranians imposing a fundamentalist Islamic regime on southern Iraq. Not only would this new state want to take Baghdad and reconstitute Iraq as a Shi'i-dominated country, but it might well revitalize the Islamic revolution in Tehran, leading to fresh outbreaks of Khomeini-style aggression.
Further, the fracturing of Iraq would create chaos between the Persian Gulf and the Taurus Mountains in Turkey. The Kurds, for example, would achieve their long-sought independence in northern Iraq - and then the real fun would begin. Persecuted by Kurds, non-Kurds would flee the new state. Large and bloody exchanges of population would follow. Kurdish leaders, eyeing the predominantly Kurdish areas of Iran, Turkey, and Syria, would enthusiastically destabilize those important countries. Border wars would proliferate. As a headline in yesterday's New York Times put it, Kurds would become "the new Palestinians." Douglas Streusand, a historian of the Middle East, points out that solving the Kurdish problem means destroying Iraq; do Americans truly wants to do this? Then there is evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments used their leverage to encourage Jalal Talabani of the PUK to rise up against Baghdad. And the Kurds are no innocents; having fought the regime for decades, they knew exactly what they were getting into. They rolled the dice and lost. It is not an American moral responsibility to save them from their mistake.
Third, Iraqis - including Shi'is and Kurds - are our opponents. President Bush glossed over this fact when he stated that we were fighting Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people. But, as Daniel Boorstin points out, such a distinction flies in the face of a long-standing American tradition which holds the body politic responsible for the actions of its state. Does a people not have the government it deserves? True, Iraqis have suffered the most from Saddam's tyranny, but they also abetted his foul regime for two decades. Ordinary Iraqi soldiers committed atrocities in Kuwait and now stand by Saddam. Substantial numbers of Shi'is and Kurds joined the ruling apparatus, serving in capacities ranging from informant to prime minister. Had the Iraqi war machine been more competent, Iraqis might have killed tens of thousands of American soldiers. While the Iraqi population is not exactly an enemy of the United States, it is by no means a friend. We owe them little.
The terrible viciousness of the Middle East is the final reason not to get involved within Iraq. Consider this depressing and predictable pattern of ethnic-based violence: The Iraqi army abuses and murders Kuwaitis. The Saudis expel 700,000 Yemenis long resident in Saudi Arabia because their government sided with Saddam Hussein. The Kuwaitis get their country back and murder Palestinians. The Iraqi army slaughters its Shi'is and Kurds, emptying whole villages and destroying ancient shrines. Meanwhile, the killing goes on, year after year, in Chad, the Sudan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
This awful litany could be extended in time both backward and forward. More to the point, were the Shi'is or Kurds winning against Saddam, we would by now surely have witnessed scenes of Sunni Arabs being massacred. Do Americans wish to be party to such barbarism? There are many ghastly events in the Middle East and the United States lacks both the means and the will to fix them. The Middle East is politically a sick place; outsiders would do well to keep a prudent moral distance.
At the same time, Americans need to feel some humility. Other than direct military force, our means (financial, diplomatic) are modest; and our will is even more limited. Iraq is a sick country with desperate problems, very few of them of our making. Given the realities of Iraq - its predominantly Muslim culture in particular - we cannot remake or unmake Iraq. There is an inhumanity to Middle East politics that we can neither contain nor stop.
This said, we can do more than watch the slaughter unfold. Washington can take limited steps to protect lives without fracturing Iraq or getting embroiled in that country's affairs. At a minimum, President Bush should condemn Baghdad with much greater passion than he has so far done. American forces should redeploy their famous logistical capabilities to provide serious humanitarian assistance to anti-Saddam rebels. And, to protect the refugees fleeing Iraq, the allies should declare exclusion zones in which Iraqi aircraft will be prohibited from flying. If made identical with the refugee enclaves suggested by Prime Minister John Major of Britain, these zones would be particularly effective.
Unlike The Wall Street Journal, which sees today's tragedy as a result of not pursuing Saddam Hussein's forces far enough, I see it resulting from Mr. Bush's verbal over-enthusiasm. Looking to the future, American politicians should recall this fiasco and be far more circumspect, so as not to raise false hopes.
Sep. 10, 2014 update: Nearly a quarter-century later, I reverse much of the above analysis at "Hello, Kurdistan."
Sep. 16, 2014 update: I go further today and argue "The Case for a Unified Kurdistan."