Is Trump another Truman? The Upcoming Challenge of Kurdish Independence
Untitled, Dara Aram
In my almost nine years of writing for New English Review, comprising almost 125 articles, I only repeated one subject nearly verbatim—with the same title (in February, 2010 and July, 2014). It dealt with the Kurds, which is also my topic for this month. The future of Kurdistan, a potentially valuable Muslim ally, friendly to both the United States and Israel, poses a major challenge for President Trump. Is he another Harry Truman, ready to defy the additional ingrained resistance and deep objections of traditionalists in the State Department and the army chiefs of staff on this question? Their views only solidified under eight years of the Obama administration.
What the president has already said about the Kurds claims to value them as decisive and true allies in the campaign against ISIS and authentic friends of the United States. Soon, however, he will be forced to put up or shut up on what is certain to become a major foreign policy issue, and like so much else, admit that running the country as president is completely different from his stump campaign speeches.
My reason for returning to the Kurdish issue is the upcoming, irreversible referendum on complete independence to take place on September 25, 2017 less than a few weeks away which would finally end America’s long term blind support for Iraq, a wholly artificial creation, as well as the present Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan—both of which were cobbled together by British imperialism at the end of World War I, and represented only imperialist considerations. Nevertheless, the American foreign policy establishment in the State Department has treated both with kid gloves as allies” or at least “friendly countries,” vital to our security interests.
Indeed on this, and the 1947 partition of Palestine by the U.N. vote leading to the creation of the State of Israel, the professional permanent Arabophile State Department and British Foreign Office have always stood together calling the tune to which we have danced until overridden decisively only by President Truman in 1948.
In 1947-48, they did all within their power to sway President Truman, who had the guts and balls to call them out as “The guys in the white spats.” Harry Truman was a very decent man committed to fundamental principles of fairness. He tried his best to lend support to some kind of Arab-Jewish cooperation that would avoid conflict but, when absolutely certain that no compromise whatsoever could win any support in the “Arab world,” he defied the powers representing the oil industry and big business, and the many “experts” who tried to dissuade him from his decision. This included a blanket threat of resignation by former Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, General George Marshall.
When learning that U.N. ambassador Warren Austin had reversed his promise to endorse partition, and instead called for a trusteeship, without the president’s knowledge, he was apoplectic. In the past, he had also been angry at Zionist activists in the Democratic Party and had urged them towards restraint but his anger knew no bounds when he learned he had been usurped by the State Department.
This was President Truman’s reaction in his own memoirs writing in his diary:
The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today. I didn't expect that would happen. In Key-West or en route there from St. Croix, I approved the speech and statement of policy by Sen. Austin to the U.N. This morning, I find that the State Department has reversed my Palestine policy. The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Isn't that Hell! Now, I am placed in a position of a liar and double-crosser. I never felt so alone in my life. There are people on the third and fourth levels of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat. They've succeeded in doing so.
Yes, these are the same people whom we call “The Deep State” today who similarly are trying to “tame” Donald Trump.
We can read in Truman’s own words his fairness, decency, independence and integrity which led him to his decision to have an American vote cast in favor of partition and later recognition of the State of Israel.
March 22, 1948: President Truman writes to his brother Vivian regarding Palestine: "I think the proper thing to do, and the thing I have been doing, is to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell!
What can we expect of Donald Trump? In spite of lip service paid to the Kurds on many occasions in the past, there is little optimism to expect in the way of a Truman-like response. Under pressure from the military and State Department diplomats, and our “Allies,” as defined by the State Department, the odds are that Trump will cave in.
In general, the American media, and most of all, academia, with its many “experts,” serving their own careers, and anxious to solicit aid and research grants in the Arab world, Turkey or Iran, have all been hostile to the Kurds just as they were to the Armenian cause and Zionism.
Time Magazine (July 14, 1967) typically called the Kurds, “A Troublesome Minority” without presenting any background information on their majority status and heritage in the areas they occupy. Similar views frequently continue to appear in most of the media that frequently and even today ignore both Jewish and Kurdish roots in the region. The absence of any historical or cultural analysis of the presence in the Middle East and Central Asia for millennia of the Kurds, a people, like the Persians and Armenians, who speak Indo-European languages, contributes to the distorted image of the region as the "historical heartland" of the Arabs or “Islam” (as if this was one monolithic entity).
Lost amidst the acrimonious debate over the American intervention in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the emergence of a free Kurdish society, the only long lasting, significant and praiseworthy achievement of that conflict, mistakenly named “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” If it were renamed, Operation Kurdish Freedom, perhaps it would have been worth the price.
In so doing, an independent Kurdistan, like Israel, and a free, independent non-communist Armenia would finally have emerged from the betrayal of the solemn promises made at the end of World War I to all three of them.
To my dismay, but hardly surprising, President Trump has already reneged on some of his signal promises to Israel and indefinitely postponed recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Indeed, the new administration refuses to categorically state that the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem is Israeli territory. Moreover, he has reversed himself on further withdrawal from Afghanistan. Does anyone believe that Afghanistan, after 17 years of fruitless American intervention to prevent a Taliban takeover, is even as trustworthy an ally as South Vietnam was? As Michael J. Totten wrote in “The Kurds are About to Blow Up Iraq” in the August, 2017 issue of World Affairs Journal, “The Kurds are as pro-American as Texans . . . An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with American backing than without it, but the Kurds are going forward regardless.”
Diplomat Dennis Ross in his magnificent book “Doomed to Succeed” dealing with the machinations of the State Department to forsake and abandon Israel, has definitively outlined the repeated mistaken policies toward demanding additional one-way Israeli compromises on the ground and the erroneous estimates of the importance of pacifying the Arabs and Muslim world. The hundred-year-old record of broken American promises to the Kurds and Armenians is taken from the same mind set.
A Kurdish region was scheduled to have a referendum following the end of World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to decide its fate, which, according to Section III, Articles 62–64 of The Treaty of Sèvres was to include the Province of Mosul. There was however no general agreement among Kurds on what its borders should be and disputes existed among Armenian and Kurdish representatives. This is a sad fact of two peoples who stood everything to gain by cooperation but were condemned to failure by their own jealous, excessive and mutually exclusive demands, but is certainly solvable today.
Neither of the maximum proposals of both Kurds and Armenians was endorsed by the Treaty of Sèvres, which outlined a truncated Kurdistan located on what is now primarily Turkish territory. Thus, the Kurdish populations of Iran, British-controlled Iraq and French-controlled Syria were all ignored. President Wilson undertook to delineate the borders of the Turkish, Armenian and Kurdish states and did an eminently fair job by all accounts. It too is gathering dust on the shelves.
The division of Kurdistan following World War I was concocted primarily by the European “Great Powers," in callous disregard for the basic human and language rights called for in the original Treaty of Sevres. The Kurds, like the Jews and Armenians were all promised national rights in their historic homelands by the League of Nations but foundered on the rock of Arab opposition. Thus, three of the world’s most ancient peoples and belonging to three diverse religions were briefly proclaimed only to be sacrificed to Turkish resistance and British and French great power designs.
Only the modern State of Israel eventually emerged from the cauldron of Arab power ambitions in the Middle East to establish an independent state, thirty years after the conclusion of World War I and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
Armenia had to wait until the fall of the Soviet Empire to regain its ancient independence and the Kurds continue to wait, divided, forgotten and ignored living under the control of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Both Russian and American attempts to increase their influence among the governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq have almost always resulted in opposition to the Kurdish struggle for increased autonomy. Nevertheless, it received brief Soviet support in 1946 when the USSR recognized the creation of a "Mahabad Kurdish Republic" in Northern Iran. (See video.)
After the fall of that state, Moscow gave refuge to one of its key figures, the famous Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, and his followers. That Barzani was the father of Masoud Barzani, the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan. In February 2013, Masoud was an official guest in Moscow where he was greeted warmly and met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others, causing shock and dismay in Baghdad.
Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the region after Arabs, Persians and Turks. They outnumber the Palestinian Arabs by about 4:1 yet they are “invisible” for the media. According to the CIA WORLD FACTBOOK, Kurds account for 18% of the total population in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, about 8% in Syria, 7% in Iran and 1.3% in Armenia. In all of these countries except Iran, Kurds form the second largest ethnic group.
The Obama regime had scarcely any time even for lip service for the Kurds in spite of their pro-American stance and willingness to fight and confront ISIS more staunchly than the Iraqi government. All of Obama’s sympathies were however enlisted to come to the aid of the Turkish government under the leadership of an Islamist party and its mercurial leader Racep Tayyip Erdogan.
The biggest threat to an independent Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey. The Turks have been fighting a low-grade counter-insurgency against the armed Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which since the 1970s has killed tens of thousands of people. Sunni Turkey is adamantly opposed to an independent Kurdish state anywhere that will both embolden and assist their internal enemies and this view is shared by Shi’ite Iran.
The Turkish government is making it clear that it is supremely unhappy with the forthcoming referendum which includes the oil rich province of Kirkuk in its referendum.
President Trump could and should use this leverage against both Turkey and Iran, but the State Department officials are fearful of the idea and believe it will create more instability and turmoil in the region. The Kurds have been instrumental in the fight on the ground against the Islamic state and their good relations with Israel have made them suspect in the eyes of both Sunni and Shi’a militants. An independent Kurdistan in Iraq would be a major block to Iran's hegemonic ambitions of creating a “Shi'ite crescent from Tehran to Beirut.”
It is also true that internal Kurdish political factionalism, and the resolute opposition of not only Turkey but also Iran and Syria make the prospect of independence daunting. President Trump understands that the Kurdish forces are the most effective force in the region and will be instrumental in taking the ISIS capital of Raqqa but he is likely to balk in the political decision to recognize the results of the referendum, as if we owed any debt to Turkey which has periodically refused to provide its airbases for use to American forces.
Of course, there are multiple economic, security, linguistic (the language is divided into many dialects) and political issues that will be difficult to resolve but refusing to recognize the right of self-determination for the Kurds will forever brand the U.S. as hypocritical in its foreign policy decisions.
It is likely that Donald J. Trump is no Harry S. Truman and more likely to have his will bent by Secretary of State Tilleman, and the new White House “Chief of Staff”, John Kelly and National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Another view among so called insiders friendly to the President believe he can only be bent so far and that events will propel him to repeat Truman’s defiant stance. I was seven years old at the time but I remember it well and the discussions it provoked.
Indeed, many older Americans remember Harry Truman’s spirited defense of his daughter’s singing performance that remind them of Trump’s similar personality trait and gut reaction to professional critics of his close family ties as well as policies.
Nothing else better illustrates the hope that Trump may yet use his instincts to stand up against the experts and not be deterred by criticism that his behavior is not appropriate for a President.
On December 6, 1950, President Truman picked up his "Washington Post" to read a review of his daughter Margaret Truman's singing performance, he became furious.
Paul Hume, the "Post's" music critic, had acknowledged that the Truman daughter Margaret was extremely attractive but stated bluntly that she “cannot sing very well" and "has not improved" over the years. The president wrote the following letter to Mr. Hume:
I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”
It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.
Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below.
The latest statement (June 7, 2017) from the U.S. State Department issued by spokeswoman Heather Nauert stated: "We support a unified, stable and a federal Iraq. We appreciate and understand the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan."
She warned that the referendum could distract from the final defeat of ISIL/ISIS. "We have expressed our concerns to the authorities in the Kurdistan Region, but holding a referendum even a non-binding resolution at this time would distract from urgent priorities—the defeat of ISIS, stabilization, the return of displaced people, managing of the region's economic crisis, and resolving the region's internal political disputes.”
This is the classical doublespeak of the Obama administration and the British Foreign Ministry which has issued the same type of warning. It bodes ill for the region, for Israel, President Trump and the moral reputation as well as the long-term security interests of the United States.
Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.
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Excellent, as usual, Norman. One question: was it not the British AND the French who drew the borders for the post-WWI Ottoman territories?
G Murphy Donovan
Kurdistan could be the signal achievement of the Trump era had he not surrounded, or should we say not surrendered, himself to an Obama junta of subordinates. On national security, Team Trump is a cabal of the usual suspects; can't win won't admit defeat.