The East Timor Model Offers a Way out for Western Sahara and Morocco

Foreign Policy Dec. 9, 2020 – It’s not often that Western Sahara makes international headlines, but in mid November it did: Nov. 14 marked the tragic—if unsurprising—breakup of a tenuous, 29-year cease-fire in Western Sahara between the occupying Moroccan government and pro-independence fighters. The outbreak of violence is concerning not only because it flew in the face of nearly three decades of relative stasis, but also because Western governments’ reflexive response to the resurgent conflict may be to upend—and thereby hamper and de-legitimize for perpetuity over 75 years of established international legal principles. It is imperative that the global community realize the path forward lies in adhering to international law… [FULL LINK]

The ongoing attack on democracy in the Maldives

A political struggle now under way on a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean has huge implications for the global struggle for democracy and human rights. Western powers which profess to support democratic and accountable governance need to act decisively to prevent this Muslim nation, whose protracted nonviolent freedom struggle was an important precursor for the Arab Spring, to continue its slide back into authoritarianism.

Despite superficial media reports depicting the situation in the Maldives as simply a power struggle between competing political factions, it appears increasingly to involve an illegal seizure of power by authoritarian criminal elements in an effort to reconsolidate control by the former dictator Mamoun Abdul Gayoom and his associates.

The nation’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed was deposed last February, less than four years after celebrating the triumph of a nonviolent pro-democracy revolution. A popular human rights activist and environmentalist who helped lead the struggle against the former dictatorship, Nasheed was – as feared and predicted – finally arrested on October 8 when fifty heavily-armed police in full riot gear and wearing masks broke down the door of a home where Nasheed and some aides were staying on a political visit to a Maldivian island. Despite offering no resistance, former cabinet officials and other pro-democracy activists were attacked with pepper spray.

As president, Nasheed had become one of the world’s most outspoken figures in the struggle against climate change, given the impending impact of rising sea levels on his country’s survival. Following his overthrow by allies for the former dictatorship earlier this year, he has sought to revive the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle that forced Gayoom to agree to free elections in October 2008, in which Nasheed emerged victorious.

Nasheed’s career-long commitment to nonviolent resistance against corruption and authoritarianism resulted in his being awarded the 2012 James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action, named after the prominent US civil rights leader. Now, however, this tragic reversal of an apparent triumph by a mass nonviolent freedom struggle could embolden other former tyrants to attempt to reverse democratic gains elsewhere – unless the international community supports serious measure to restore the necessary conditions for Maldivian democracy.

A journalist by training, Nasheed was repeatedly jailed and tortured for his writings exposing government corruption and other abuses under the Gayoom regime. He eventually found himself leading a campaign of nonviolent protests and civil disobedience which eventually brought an end to a thirty-year dictatorship which had facilitated corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, significant parts of the old regime’s police and judicial system remained in place after Nasheed took office. When he attempted to investigate and pursue reforms of the system, he was detained and – facing threats against his family and prominent supporters – was forced to resign.

His vice-president, Mohamed Waheed, who was apparently part of the plot, assumed the presidency and promptly dismissed Nasheed’s ministers, replacing them with conservative Islamists opposed to Nasheed’s liberal reforms as well as nine key figures from the former dictatorship, including Gayoom’s son and daughter. The United States immediately recognized the new government, refusing to acknowledge the coup, instead referring to the ouster of the democratically-elected president as simply a “transition of power.” Similarly, US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland commended as “thorough and conclusive” a highly-problematic Commission of Inquiry which claimed Nasheed’s resignation was not under duress, despite its failure to consider important evidence to the contrary or allow for key witnesses.

But regardless of the circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s resignation, it seems clearer every day that the regime that replaced his government has little regard for human rights or the democratic process. Indeed, the real test of a government’s legitimacy is its tolerance of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Since the coup
Since the coup, more than 2,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested, many suffering severe beatings by security forces. Amnesty International has described the situation in the Maldives as a “human rights crisis,” documenting widespread brutality by security forces and arbitrary arrests. The US State Department, however, has simply called “for restraint by all sides to prevent possible violence.” In a visit to the Maldives last month, assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robert Blake announced a plan to work with the regime’s military and police to “strengthen them” and “build up their capacity.”

The repression is not just taking place against those on the streets. In recent months, key leaders in Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have been arrested on politically-motivated charges and now Nasheed himself appears to be suffering the same fate.

Nasheed and his supporters, apparently confident of victory in any free and fair poll, have called for elections as early as possible – as did the British foreign secretary last month. In parliamentary elections prior to the coup, Nasheed’s NDP won the largest number of votes. Even the head of the Commission of Inquiry, a judge from the autocratic country of Singapore, has endorsed the call for elections as soon as feasible.

The regime, however, has reneged on its promises for early elections and has refused to announce a future date for them. There is some speculation that, even if the regime does eventually allow for elections, the filing of charges against the popular deposed president and restricting his movement are designed to prevent him from campaigning or from running altogether. Indeed, if the leader of the democratic opposition is detained, it raises serious questions regarding the regime’s commitment to anything resembling a normal democratic process. And Nasheed’s legal troubles may only have begun. The regime’s Home Affairs Minister has threatened to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Even simply restricting Nasheed to the capital island of Male would make it impossible for him to travel through his country or abroad to rally support. The latter is critical, because for a country as dependent on tourism and foreign trade as Maldives, even relatively mild sanctions by Great Britain, the United States, Australia or India could be a major constraint on those who have taken power and whose democratic intentions are widely distrusted, including by most Maldivians.

Indeed, it is the lucrative tourism industry which has contributed to the country’s crisis. Gayoum and a handful of his family members and cronies are reputed to own well more than half of the island properties where expensive hotel resorts are located, a source of the enormous wealth that Gayoom used to buy the loyalty of corrupt judges and security forces.

Before 2008, Nasheed and pro-democracy activists were able to force free elections and influence Gayoom to honour the result because of the threat of western sanctions. They will have a very difficult time forcing free elections again without similar pressure, which has thus far not been forthcoming.

If western governments are unwilling to implement even modest measures which could significantly advance democracy in the Maldives, what hope is there for those involved in nonviolent struggles for democracy in more complicated circumstances?

Indeed, if western countries are unwilling to place any pressure against a regime of questionable legitimacy, which is allied with a former dictator and hard-line Islamists, and if they fail to provide any support for a popularly-elected leader committed to democracy and to nonviolence, what kind of message does that send to those struggling nonviolently for freedom elsewhere in the world?

Popular nonviolent struggles in poor countries emerging from authoritarianism and fighting corruption must know that the international community has their back.

Fortunately, leading human rights activists, environmentalists, academics, actors, and others are mobilizing in support for democracy in the Maldives. The question is whether the world will listen.

Obama and the Denial of Genocide

The Obama administration, citing its relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full House of Representatives of a resolution passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny genocide.

Following the committee vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that “We are against this decision,” and pledged that the administration would “work very hard” to prevent the bill from coming to the floor. Despite widespread support for the resolution by House Democrats, she expressed confidence that the administration would find a means of blocking the resolution, saying, “Now we believe that the U.S. Congress will not take any decision on this subject.”

As candidates, both Clinton and Barack Obama had pledged that their administrations would be the first to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Clinton acknowledged that this was a reversal, but insisted that circumstances had “changed in very significant ways.” The State Department, however, has been unable to cite any new historical evidence that would counter the broad consensus that genocide had indeed taken place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The official excuse is that it might harm an important rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. However, there is no indication the Armenian government is at all concerned about potential negative fallout in their bilateral relations over a resolution passed by a legislative body in a third country.

More likely, the concern is over not wanting to jeopardize the cooperation of Turkey, which borders Iran, in the forthcoming enhanced sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Back in 2007, a similar resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide also passed through the House Foreign Relations Committee. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that she would allow it to come for a vote. With 226 cosponsors — a clear majority of the House — there was little question it would pass. However, in response to claims by the Bush White House and Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the “Global War on Terror,” Pelosi broke her promise and used her power as speaker to prevent a vote on the resolution. She will also certainly buckle under pressure from an administration of her own party.

The Historical Record

Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500 years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of execution, starvation, and related reasons.

According to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that period, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.” While issuing a “death warrant to a whole race” would normally be considered genocide by any definition, this apparently isn’t the view of the Obama administration.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United States, officially defines genocide as any effort “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The earliest proponent of such an international convention was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who originally coined the term “genocide” and identified the Armenian case as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments — including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia — and several UN bodies, as well as 40 U.S. states, have formally recognized the Armenian genocide. The Obama administration does not, however, and is apparently determined to prevent Congress from doing so.

Congress has previously gone on record condemning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews. Congress appears unwilling, however, to challenge Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to marginalize those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust, tolerance for anti-Armenian bigotry appears strong enough that it’s still considered politically acceptable to deny their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure argue that they’re worried about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally. However, the United States has done much greater harm in its relations with Turkey through policies far more significant than a symbolic resolution acknowledging a tragic historical period. The United States clandestinely backed an attempted military coup by right-wing Turkish officers in 2003, arming Iraqi and Iranian Kurds with close ties to Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish citizens. The United States also invaded neighboring Iraq. As a result, the percentage of Turks who view the United States positively declined from 52 percent to only 9 percent.

Generations of Turks have been taught that there was no Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, but that there were scattered atrocities on both sides. Indeed, most Turks believe their country is being unfairly scapegoated, particularly when the United States refuses to label its treatment of American Indians as genocide or acknowledge more recent war crimes. As a result, some argue that a more appropriate means of addressing the ongoing Turkish denial of historical reality would be through dialogue and some sort of re-education, avoiding the patently political device of a congressional resolution that would inevitably make Turks defensive.

Failure to acknowledge the genocide, however, is a tragic affront to the rapidly dwindling number of genocide survivors as well as their descendents. It’s also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed the Ottoman Empire’s policies and tried to stop the genocide, as well as the growing number of Turks today who face imprisonment by their U.S.-backed regime for daring to publicly concede the crimes of their forebears. For example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, was prosecuted and fled into exile to escape death threats after making a number of public references to the genocide.

Some opponents of the resolution argue that it is pointless for Congress to pass resolutions regarding historical events. Yet there were no such complaints regarding resolutions commemorating the Holocaust, nor are there normally complaints regarding the scores of dedicatory resolutions passed by Congress in recent years, ranging from commemorating the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski to noting the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.

The Obama administration insists that that this is a bad time to upset the Turkish government. However, it was also considered a “bad time” to pass the resolution back in 2007, on the grounds that it not jeopardize U.S. access to Turkish bases as part of efforts to support the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. It was also considered a “bad time” when a similar resolution was put forward in 2000 because the United States was using its bases in Turkey to patrol the “no fly zones” in northern Iraq. And it was also considered a “bad time” in 1985 and 1987, when similar resolutions were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were considered important listening posts for monitoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it’s always a “bad time.”

While the passage of the resolution would certainly lead to strong diplomatic protests from Turkey, it is dubious that there would be much of a rupture between Ankara and Washington. When President Ronald Reagan, a major backer of the right-wing military dictatorship then ruling Turkey, once used the term genocide in relation to Armenians, U.S.-Turkish relations did not suffer.

The Obama administration, like administrations before it, simply refuses to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. As recently as the 1980s, the Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that “Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish government committed genocide against the Armenian people.” Even more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in President George W. Bush, stated in 2002 that “one of the things that impress me about Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own minorities.”

The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon Obama “to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide and the consequences of the failure to realize a just resolution.” Therefore, if Obama really doesn’t want Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do is make an executive order acknowledging the genocide. Despite whatever excuses one wants to make, failure to do so amounts to genocide denial.

Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable record of the Armenian genocide, many of those who refuse to recognize Turkey’s genocide of Armenians, like those who refuse to recognize Germany’s genocide of European Jews, are motivated by ignorance and bigotry. The Middle East scholar most often cited by members of Congress as influencing their understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington’s Institute of Turkish Studies.

Not every opponent of the current resolution explicitly denies that there was genocide. Some acknowledge that genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been convinced that it’s detrimental to U.S. security to state this publicly. This is still inexcusable. Such moral cowardice is no less reprehensible than refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust if it were believed that doing so might upset the German government, which also hosts critical U.S. bases.

Obama is not the first Democratic president to effectively deny the Armenian genocide. President Bill Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress a similar bill, after it passed the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full House. President Jimmy Carter also suppressed a Senate effort led by Bob Dole, whose miraculous recovery from near-fatal wounds during World War II was overseen by an Armenian-American doctor who had survived the genocide.

Interestingly, neoconservatives — quick to defend crimes against humanity by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, and others — are opportunistically using Obama’s flip-flop on this issue as evidence of the moral laxity of Democrats on human rights.

Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once asked, “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?” Obama is sending a message to future tyrants that they can commit genocide without acknowledgement by the world’s most powerful country.

Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those responsible for it in a historical context makes it easier to deny genocide today. In 1994, the Clinton also refused to use the word “genocide” in the midst of the Rwandan government’s massacres of over half that country’s Tutsi population, a decision that contributed to the delay in deploying international peacekeeping forces until after the slaughter of 800,000 people.

As a result, the Obama administration’s position on the Armenian genocide isn’t simply about whether to commemorate a tragedy that took place 95 years ago. It’s about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of crimes. It’s about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies. It’s about whether we see our nation as appeasing our strategic allies or upholding our longstanding principles.

The U.S. and Georgia

The international condemnation of Russian aggression against Georgia – and the concomitant assaults by Abkhazians and South Ossetians against ethnic Georgians within their territories – is in large part appropriate. But the self-righteous posturing coming out of Washington should be tempered by a sober recognition of the ways in which the United States has contributed to the crisis.

It has been nearly impossible to even broach this subject of the U.S. role. Much of the mainstream media coverage and statements by American political leaders of both major parties has in many respects resembled the anti-Russian hysterics of the Cold War. It is striking how quickly forgotten is the fact that the U.S.-backed Georgian military started the war when it brutally assaulted the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in an attempt to regain direct control of the autonomous region. This attack prompted the disproportionate and illegitimate Russian military response, which soon went beyond simply ousting invading Georgian forces from South Ossetia to invading and occupying large segments of Georgia itself.

The South Ossetians themselves did much to provoke Georgia as well by shelling villages populated by ethnic Georgians earlier this month. However, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ruled out signing a non-aggression pact and repeatedly refused to rejoin talks of the Joint Control Commission to prevent an escalation of the violence. Furthermore, according to Reuters, a draft UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease fire was blocked when the United States objected to “a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides ‘to renounce the use of force.’”

Borders and Boundaries

In the Caucuses and Central Asia, the Russian empire and its Soviet successors, like the Western European colonialists in Africa, often drew state boundaries arbitrarily and, in some cases, not so arbitrarily as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The small and ethnically distinct regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Ajaria were incorporated into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and – on the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – remained as autonomous regions within the state of Georgia. Not one of the regions was ethnically pure. They all included sizable ethnic Georgian minorities, among others. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, there was not much in the way of ethnic tension during most of the Soviet period and inter-marriage was not uncommon.

As the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s, however, nationalist sentiments increased dramatically throughout the Caucuses region in such ethnic enclaves as Chechnya in Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, as well as among those within Georgia. Compounding these nationalist and ethnic tensions was the rise of the ultra-nationalist Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who assumed power when the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With the possible exception of the Baltic states, Georgia had maintained the strongest sense of nationalism of any of the former Soviet republics, tracing its national identity as far back as the 4th century BC as one of most advanced states of its time. This resurgent nationalism led the newly re-emerged independent Georgia to attempt to assert its sovereignty over its autonomous regions by force.

A series of civil conflicts raged in Georgia in subsequent years, both between competing political factions within Georgia itself as well as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, resulting in widespread ethnic cleansing. Backed by Russian forces, these two regions achieved de facto independence while, within Georgia proper, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze emerged as president and brought some semblance of stability to the country, despite a weak economy and widespread corruption.

Russian troops, nominally in a peacekeeping role but clearly aligned with nationalist elements within the two ethnic enclaves, effectively prevented any subsequent exercise of Georgian government authority over most of these territories. Meanwhile, the United States became the biggest foreign backer of the Shevardnadze regime, pouring in over $1 billion in aid during the decade of his corrupt and semi-authoritarian rule.

The Rose Revolution

Though strongly supported by Washington, Shevardnadze was less well-respected at home. For example, The New York Times reported how “Georgians have a different perspective” than the generous pro-government view from Washington, citing the observation in the Georgian daily newspaper The Messenger that, “Despite the fact that he is adored in the West as an ‘architect of democracy’ and credited with ending the Cold War, Georgians cannot bear their president.” Though critical of the rampant corruption and rigged elections, the Bush administration stood by the Georgian regime, as they had the post-Communist dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and most of the other former Soviet republics.

Georgia enjoyed relatively more political freedom and civil society institutions than most other post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, high unemployment, a breakdown in the allocation of energy for heating and other needs, a deteriorating infrastructure, widespread corruption, and inept governance led to growing dissatisfaction with the government. By 2003, Shevardnadze had lost support from virtually every social class, ethnic group, and geographical region of the country. Heavy losses by his supporters in parliamentary elections early that November were widely anticipated. Still, Shevardnadze continued to receive the strong support of President George W. Bush due to his close personal relationship with high-ranking administration officials. Contributing to this relationship were his pro-Western policies, such as embarking upon ambitious free market reforms under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund, agreeing to deploy 300 Georgian troops to Iraq following the U.S. invasion, and sending Georgian troops trained by U.S. Special Forces to the Pankisi Gorge on the border of Chechnya to fight Chechen rebels. Opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvilli strongly criticized the United States for its continued support of the Georgian president.

In addition to the electoral opposition, a decentralized student-led grass roots movement known as Kmara emerged, calling for an end to corruption and more democratic and accountable government as well as free and fair elections. Though not directly supported by the Bush administration, a number of Western NGOs, including the Open Society Institute (backed by Hungarian-American financier George Soros) and the National Democratic Institute (supported, ironically, by U.S. congressional funding) provided funding for election-monitoring and helped facilitate workshops for both the young Kmara activists and mainstream opposition leaders. This led to some serious tension between these non-governmental organizations and the U.S. embassy in Georgian capital.

For example, when U.S. ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles learned that some leaders from the successful student-led nonviolent civil insurrection in Serbia three years earlier were in Tbilisi to give trainings to Kmara activists, he tried to discourage them by telling them that “Shevardnadze is the guarantee for the peace and stability of the region.” Noting that the United States was providing training and equipment of the Georgian army that anti-government demonstrators would soon be facing down in the streets, he referred to the Kmara as “troublemakers.” Similarly, Miles discouraged Kmara leaders from working with the Serb activists, whom he had known from his prior post as chief of mission in Belgrade, insisting that “Georgia is not the same as Serbia.” (The young Serbs ignored him, and the scheduled trainings in strategic nonviolent action went forward anyway.)
The parliamentary elections that November were marred by a series of irregularities. These included widespread ballot-stuffing, multiple voting by government supporters, late poll openings, missing ballots, and missing voter lists in opposition strongholds. These attempts to steal the election elicited little more than finger-wagging from the Bush administration.

The Georgians themselves did not take the situation so lightly, however. They launched general strikes and massive street protests against what they saw as illegitimate government authority. This effort was soon dubbed the “Rose Revolution.” Gaining support from the United States only after the success of the nonviolent civil insurrection appeared inevitable, this popular uprising forced Shevardnadze to resign.

Presidential elections, certified as free and fair by international observers, were held two months later, in which opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili emerged victorious. Four months later, the authoritarian ruler of the autonomous region of Ajaria, a Shevardnadze ally, was ousted in a similar nonviolent civil insurrection.

Though not responsible for the change of government itself, the Bush administration soon moved to take advantage of the change the Georgian people brought about after the fact.

U.S. Embrace of Saakashvili

Despite its longstanding support for Shevardnadze, the Bush administration quickly embraced Georgia’s new president. Taking advantage of Georgia’s desperate economic situation, the United States successfully lobbied for a series of additional free market reforms and other neoliberal economic measures on the country, including a flat tax of 14%. Though official corruption declined, tax collection rates improved, and the rate of economic growth increased, high unemployment remained and social inequality grew.

With strong encouragement from Washington, Saakashvili’s government reduced domestic spending but dramatically increased military spending, with the armed forces expanding to more than 45,000 personnel over the next four years, more than 12,000 of whom were trained by the United States. Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance to Georgia, a small country of less than five million people. In addition, the United States successfully encouraged Israel to send advisors and trainers to support the rapidly-expanding Georgian armed forces.

Although facing growing security concerns at home, the Bush administration also successfully pushed Saakashvili to send an additional 1,700 troops to Iraq. Thus, Georgia increased its troop strength in Iraq by more than 500% even as other countries in the U.S.-led multinational force were pulling out.

Though Georgia is located in a region well within Russia’s historic sphere of influence and is more than 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bush nevertheless launched an ambitious campaign to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Russians, who had already seen previous U.S. assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not extend eastward ignored, found the prospects of NATO expansion to the strategically important and volatile Caucasus region particularly provocative. This inflamed Russian nationalists and Russian military leaders and no doubt strengthened their resolve to maintain their military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Washington’s embrace of Saakashvili, like its earlier embrace of Shevardnadze, appears to have been based in large part on oil. The United States has helped establish Georgia as a major energy transit corridor, building an oil pipeline from the Caspian region known as the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylan) and a parallel natural gas pipeline, both designed to avoid the more logical geographical routes through Russia or Iran. The Russians, meanwhile, in an effort to maintain as much control over the westbound oil from the region, have responded by pressuring the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to sign exclusive export agreements and to construct natural gas pipelines through Russia. (See Michael Klare’s Russia and Georgia: All About Oil.)

Amid accusations of widespread corruption and not adequately addressing the country’s growing poverty, Saakashvili himself faced widespread protests in November 2007, to which he responded with severe repression, shutting down independent media, detaining opposition leaders, and sending his security forces to assault largely nonviolent demonstrators with tear gas, truncheons, rubber bullets, water cannons, and sonic equipment. Human Rights Watch criticized the government for using “excessive” force against protesters and the International Crisis Group warned of growing authoritarianism in the country. Despite this, Saakashvili continued to receive strong support from Washington and still appeared to have majority support within Georgia, winning a snap election in January by a solid majority which – despite some irregularities – was generally thought to be free and fair.

Lead-up to the Current Crisis

A number of misguided U.S. policies appear to have played an important role in encouraging Georgia to launch its August 6 assault on South Ossetia.

The first had to do with the U.S.-led militarization of Georgia, which likely emboldened Saakashvili to try to resolve the conflict over South Ossetia by military means. Just last month, the United States held a military exercise in Georgia with more than 1,000 American troops while the Bush administration, according to The New York Times, was “loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.” As the situation was deteriorating last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile visit to Saakashvili in Tbilisi, where she reiterated the strong strategic relationship between the two countries.

Radio Liberty speculates that Saakashvili “may have felt that his military, after several years of U.S.-sponsored training and rearmament, was now capable of routing the Ossetian separatists (“bandits,” in the official parlance) and neutralizing the Russian peacekeepers.” Furthermore, Saakashvili apparently hoped that the anticipated Russian reaction would “immediately transform the conflict into a direct confrontation between a democratic David and an autocratic Goliath, making sure the sympathy of the Western world would be mobilized for Georgia.”

According to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States may have caused Saakashvili to “miscalculate” and “overreach” by making him feel that “at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble.”

Another factor undoubtedly involved the U.S. push for Georgia to join NATO. The efforts by some prominent Kremlin lawmakers for formal recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia coincided with the escalated efforts for NATO’s inclusion of Georgia this spring, as well as an awareness that any potential Russian military move against Georgia would need to come sooner rather than later.

And, as a number of us predicted last March, Western support for the unilateral declaration of independence by the autonomous Serbian region of Kosovo emboldened nationalist leaders in the autonomous Georgian regions, along with their Russian supporters, to press for the independence of these nations as well. Despite the pro-American sympathies of many in that country, Georgians were notably alarmed by the quick and precedent-setting U.S. recognition of Kosovo.

No Standing to Challenge Russian Aggression

Russia’s massive and brutal military counter-offensive, while immediately provoked by Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, had clearly been planned well in advance. It also went well beyond defending the enclave to illegally sending forces deep into Georgia itself and inflicting widespread civilian casualties. It has had nothing to do with solidarity with an oppressed people struggling for self-determination and everything to do with geopolitics and the assertion of militaristic Russian nationalism.

While the international community has solid grounds to challenge Russian aggression, however, the United States has lost virtually all moral standing to take a principled stance.

For example, the brutally punitive and disproportionate response by the Russian armed forces pales in comparison to that of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Lebanon, which were strongly defended not only by the Bush administration, but leading Democrats in Congress, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

Russia’s use of large-scale militarily force to defend the autonomy of South Ossetia by massively attacking Georgia has been significantly less destructive than the U.S.-led NATO assault on Serbia to defend Kosovo’s autonomy in 1999, an action that received broad bipartisan American support.

And the Russian ground invasion of Georgia, while a clear violation of international legal norms, is far less significant a breach of international law as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, authorized by a large majority in Congress.

This doesn’t mean that the Russia’s military offensive should not be rigorously opposed. However, the U.S. contribution to this unfolding tragedy and the absence of any moral authority to challenge it must not be ignored.

The United States and the Kurds: a brief history

To add to the tragic violence unleashed throughout Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion of that country, the armed forces of Turkey have launched attacks into the Kurdish-populated region in northern Iraq to fight guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Taking advantage of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, the PKK has been escalating their raids into Turkey, prompting the October 17 decision by the Turkish parliament to authorize military action within Iraq.

The Kurds are a nation of more than 30 million people divided among six countries, primarily in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey and with smaller numbers in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and the Caucuses. They are the world’s largest nation without a state of their own. Their struggle for self-determination has been hampered by the sometime bitter rivalry between competing nationalist groups, some of which have been used as pawns by regional powers as well as by the United States.

The Beginnings

At the 1919 Versailles Conference, in which the victorious allies of World War I were carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson unsuccessfully pushed for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Since that time, however, U.S. policy toward the Kurds has been far less supportive and often cynically opportunistic.

For example, in the mid-1970s, in conjunction with the dictatorial Shah of Iran, the United States goaded Iraqi Kurds into launching an armed uprising against the then left-leaning Iraqi government with the promise of continued military support. However, the United States abandoned them precipitously as part of an agreement with the Baghdad regime for a territorial compromise favorable to Iran regarding the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Suddenly without supply lines to obtain the necessary equipment to defend themselves, the Iraqi army marched into Kurdish areas and thousands were slaughtered. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed concerns about the humanitarian consequences of this betrayal by saying that “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

The 1980s

The uprising by Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad resumed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, led by guerrillas of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.) Strong Iranian support for the PUK made virtually all Kurds potential traitors in the eyes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which responded with savage repression. In the latter part of the decade, in what became known as the Anfal campaign, as many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians were killed and more than one million Iraqi Kurds–nearly one-quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population–were displaced.

Despite this, the United States increased its support for Saddam Hussein’s regime during this period, providing agricultural subsidies and other economic aid as well as limited military assistance. American officials looked the other way as much of these funds were laundered by purchasing military equipment despite widespread knowledge that it was being deployed as part of Baghdad’s genocidal war against the Kurds. The United States also sent an untold amount of indirect aid–largely through Kuwait and other Arab countries–which enabled Iraq to receive weapons and technology to increase its war-making capacity.

The March 1988 Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabja–where Iraq government forces massacred upwards to 5,000 civilians by gassing them with chemical weapons–was downplayed by the Reagan administration, even to the point of leaking phony intelligence claiming that Iran, then the preferred American enemy, was actually responsible. The Halabja tragedy was not an isolated incident, as U.S. officials were well aware at the time. UN reports in 1986 and 1987 documented Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, which were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from U.S. embassy staff who visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey. However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about the ongoing repression and the use of chemical weapons, the United States actually was supporting the Iraqi government’s procurement efforts of materials necessary for the development of such an arsenal.

When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Saddam Hussein’s policy of widespread killings of Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced “The Prevention of Genocide Act” to put pressure on the Iraqi government. However, the Reagan administration–insisting on being able to continue its military and economic support of Saddam Hussein’s regime–successfully moved to have the measure killed.

This history of appeasement raises serious questions regarding the sincerity of both the strategic and moral concerns subsequently raised by U.S. officials about both the nature of the Iraqi regime and the treatment of the Kurdish population.

Military intervention against Saddam’s regime could have arguably been considered legal during this period under provisions of the Genocide Treaty. It could not, however, justify such military intervention retroactively a full fifteen years later, as argued by the Bush administration and its supporters. It was therefore disingenuous in the extreme to justify the U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country in 2003 on the grounds that “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people” when the United States did nothing to stop the slaughter when it was actually going on. The suffering of the Kurdish people under Saddam’s rule was shamelessly used as an excuse, but should under no circumstances be considered an actual motivation, for the American conquest.

Indeed, as a result of the destruction of most of the Iraqi air force in the 1991 Gulf War, the establishment of an international embargo prohibiting the import of needed spare parts and the lack of domestic sources effectively grounding what remained, the post-Gulf War autonomy exercised by the Kurdish population, and the strict enforcement of a “no-fly zone” covering most Kurdish-populated areas in northern Iraq, the regime in Baghdad no longer had the capacity to engage in such large-scale repression, even if Saddam Hussein had remained in power.

The 1991 Kurdish Uprising

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds launched a major popular rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s regime. With the Iraqi army already devastated from six weeks of massive assaults by the United States and allied forces and then forced to fight a simultaneous Shiite-led rebellion in southern Iraq, the Kurds initially made major advances, seizing a series of key towns. These gains were soon reversed by a brutal counter-attack by Iraqi government forces, however. Despite President George Bush calling on the people of Iraq to rise up against the dictatorship, U.S. forces–which at that time temporarily occupied a large strip of southern Iraq–did nothing to support the post-war rebellion and stood by while thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Shiites, and others were slaughtered.

In the cease-fire agreement following the expulsion of Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait, the United States made a conscious decision to exclude Iraqi helicopter gunships from the ban on Iraqi military air traffic. These were the very weapons that proved so decisive in crushing the rebellions.

U.S. officials have claimed that they were tricked into thinking that Iraqi military helicopters would be used only for post-war humanitarian relief. Others suspect, however, that the Bush administration feared a victory by Iraqi Kurds might encourage the ongoing Kurdish uprising in Turkey, a NATO ally.

By the end of March 1991, as many one million Kurds had fled their homes to escape advancing Iraqi government forces. Most were able to flee to safety in Iran, but the U.S.-backed Turkish regime–while allowing some to seek temporary refuge–blocked more than 100,000 Kurds from entering their country, thereby trapping them in snowy mountains in violation of their obligations under international humanitarian law to allow the fleeing civilians sanctuary. Without food, water, or shelter, as many as 1,000 refugees reportedly died each day. With the humanitarian crisis growing, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 688, demanding that the Iraqi government immediately end the repression and allow access for humanitarian organizations to provide relief and calling on member states to contribute to humanitarian operations. US. forces, operating out of its bases in Turkey and with the assistance of a dozen other countries, began air dropping emergency supplies, soon followed by the deployment of thousands of troops into northern Iraq to provide additional aid and to construct resettlement camps. By July, most U.S. troops were withdrawn to a forward operating base on the Turkish side of the border. At the request of Turkey, concerned about the detrimental impact on its relations with Iraq and Iran, U.S. ground operations were phased out by the end of 1996.

The No-Fly Zone

Meanwhile, the United States–along with Great Britain and France–unilaterally banned the Iraqi government from deploying any of its aircraft in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel with the stated goal of enforcing UN Security Council resolution 688. The UN resolution did not authorize such enforcement mechanisms, however, and there was no precedence in international law allowing foreign countries to indefinitely prevent the deployment of a sovereign government’s armed forces within its internationally-recognized territory. Despite its dubious legality, the establishment of the no-fly zone initially received widespread bipartisan support in Washington and even among human rights advocates as an appropriate means of preventing a renewal of the Iraqi government’s savage repression of the Kurdish people. (A second no-fly zone was later unilaterally established for much of southern Iraq.)

According to two State Department reports in 1994 and 1996, the creation and military enforcement of the “no-fly zone” in fact did not protect the Iraqi Kurdish populations from potential assaults by Iraqi forces, which–after crushing the March 1991 rebellion–had pulled back and were focused on post-war reconstruction and protecting the regime in Baghdad. In addition, the straight latitudinal demarcations of the no-fly zone did not correspond with the areas of predominant Kurdish populations, excluding large Kurdish-populated areas which had previously been subjected to air attacks (such as Hallabja) and including predominantly Arab areas which had not been a target of Iraqi government forces. Seeing what had began as an apparent humanitarian effort evolve into an excuse for continuing a low-level war against Iraq, France soon dropped out of the enforcement efforts.

At the end of August 1996, factional fighting broke out between the PUK and the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. Concerned about possible advances by the Iranian-backed PUK, tens of thousands of Iraqi forces headed north in an effort to force PUK militiamen out of the key northern city of Irbil. In response, President Bill Clinton ordered a series of major bombing raids and missile attacks against Iraq. Despite concerns over the illegality of this unilateral intervention and the possibility of becoming embroiled in an inter-Kurdish conflict, the American air and missile strikes received widespread bipartisan support in Washington. This supposed rush to the defense of the Kurds may have been just a pretext, however: while the incursion by Iraqi government forces took place in the north, most of the U.S. strikes took place in the central and southern part of Iraq–hundreds of miles from the Iraqi advance.

In what became a prime example of “mission creep,” U.S. forces patrolling the no-fly zone gradually escalated its rules of engagement. The use of force was initially justified as a means to challenge Iraqi encroachments into the proscribed airspace. Later, it was escalated to include assaults on anti-aircraft batteries that fired at allied aircraft enforcing the zone. It escalated still further when anti-aircraft batteries were attacked simply for locking on their radar toward allied aircraft, even without firing. By the end of the decade, President Clinton began ordering attacks on additional radar installations and other military targets within the no-fly zone, even when they were unrelated to an alleged Iraqi threat against a particular U.S. aircraft. When the Bush administration came to office, the targeting was expanded still further, with the U.S. attacking radar and command-and-control installations well beyond the no-fly zones. By 2002, U.S. air strikes against Iraq were taking place almost daily.

Authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in October 2002, Congress justified the war in part because “the current Iraqi regime has demonstrated its continuing hostility toward, and willingness to attack, the United States … by … firing on many thousands of occasions on United States and Coalition Armed Forces engaged in enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.” In reality, however, there was no such UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone or the penetration of Iraqi airspace by U.S. forces (beyond providing direct humanitarian relief or direct support for weapons inspections teams.) Indeed, during the debate leading to the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 688 in 1991, there was absolutely no mention of no-fly zones. Indeed, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali flatly declared the U.S. attacks “illegal.”

In short, rather than an expression of humanitarian concern for Iraq’s Kurdish population, the no-fly zones became instruments to legitimize U.S. attacks against Iraq. Indeed, in the dozen years the no-fly zone was in effect for northern Iraq, far more Kurds were killed by U.S. air strikes than by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Supporting anti-Kurdish Repression from Turkey

The insincerity of U.S. support for the Kurdish people during this period could not have been more apparent than through the strong U.S. support for the Turkish government in its repression of its own Kurdish population.

The Kurds of Turkey number well over 15 million, the largest of any country. Yet there have been periods in recent history when simply speaking the Kurdish language or celebrating Kurdish festivals has been severely repressed. In addition to being denied basic cultural and political rights, Kurdish civilians for years suffered from the counter-insurgency campaign by Turkish armed forces ostensibly targeting the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-led guerrilla group fighting for greater autonomy. The Turkish regime capitalized on the PKK’s use of terrorism as an excuse to crush even nonviolent expressions of Kurdish nationalism. During the height of the repression during the 1990s, the United States–while condemning the PKK–was largely silent regarding the Turkish government’s repression.

The Clinton administration justified its eleven-week bombing campaign of Yugoslavia in 1999 on the grounds that atrocities such as the Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanians must not take place “on NATO’s doorstep.” Ironically, similar ethnic-based repression on an even greater scale had been already taking place for a number of years within a NATO country without U.S. objections.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States supplied Turkey with $15 billion worth of armaments as the Turkish military carried out widespread attacks against civilian populations in the largest use of American weapons by non-U.S. forces since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Most of this took place during President Clinton’s first term. Over 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and over two million Kurds became refugees in an operation where more than three-quarters of the weapons were of U.S. origin. Human Rights Watch, which also criticized the PKK rebels for serious human rights violations, documented how the U.S.-supplied Turkish army was “responsible for the majority of forced evacuations and destruction of villages.” The fifteen-year war cost over 40,000 lives.

n addition, despite justifying air strikes against Iraq in the name of enforcing the Kurdish “safe haven” and the no-fly zone in the northern part of that country, the Clinton administration defended periodic incursions into the safe haven by thousands of Turkish troops as well as air strikes by the Turkish military inside Iraqi territory which resulted in the deaths of large numbers of PKK guerrillas and Iraqi Kurdish civilians. These attacks were widely condemned by the international community, but defended by the U.S. government, with President Clinton standing out as the only international leader to openly support the Turkish regime’s military interventions in Iraq. According to Clinton State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, “Turkey’s an ally. And we have no reason to question the need for an incursion across the border.”

The United States provided a major boost for Turkey’s fight against the Kurds in 1998, when the Clinton administration successfully pressured Syria to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In February the following year, the United States assisted Turkish intelligence agents in locating Ocalan in Kenya, where he was kidnapped, brought to Turkey and initially sentenced to death, though this was later commuted to life in prison. Despite what most observers saw as prejudicial treatment, the Clinton State Department refused to question the fairness of the proceedings.

The following year, the PKK declared a unilateral cease fire. Subsequently, with a respite from the violence and under pressure from European governments and human rights groups, the government of Turkey granted greater cultural rights and political freedom for its Kurdish minority. Despite hundreds of nonviolent Kurdish dissidents remaining in Turkish jails, the emergence of a more moderate PKK leadership and a lessening of Turkish repression gave some hope for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Emboldened by the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion, however, the PKK resumed its armed struggle in 2004.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Though effectively autonomous since the establishment of the safe haven in the spring of 1991, Iraqi Kurds formally gained unprecedented rights as a result of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The Democratic Patriot Alliance of Kurdistan–an alliance of the KDP and the PUK and some minor parties–constitutes the second largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, holding 54 seats. PUK leader Jalal Talabani has held the position of Iraqi president–a largely-ceremonial post–since 2005. Other Kurdish parties hold an additional 14 seats. Collectively, these Kurdish nationalists constitute the strongest pro-American bloc in the Iraqi parliament

As a result of U.S. pressure, the Iraqi constitution requires super-majorities for key pieces of legislation, giving the Kurdish nationalists effective veto power against legislation deemed harmful to U.S. interests.

Also as a result of the U.S.-backed constitutional structure and in return for providing a working parliamentary majority for the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, most of the predominantly Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq have come under the control of the KDP/PUK-dominated Kurdish Regional Government. The former KDP guerrilla leader Nechirvan Barzani serves as prime minister.

Baghdad has virtually no jurisdiction in the northern part of their country and Iraqi Kurdistan has evolved into a de facto independent state. Foreigners entering northern Iraq now have their passports stamped not with the official Iraqi insignia, but with one for “Iraqi Kurdistan.” Though the Kurdish flag is omnipresent, any display of the Iraqi national flag is effectively forbidden. Signs are in Kurdish, virtually none are in Arabic. Iraqi government troops are forbidden from entering the region without expressed approval of the Kurdish parliament.

Government corruption is widespread in Iraqi Kurdistan and opposition activists are routinely beaten, tortured, and killed. Kurdish-born Austrian lawyer and professor Kamal Sayid Qadir reported how “the Kurdish parties transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a fortress for oppression, theft of public funds, and serious abuses of human rights like murder, torture, amputation of ears and noses, and rape.” He added that these “privileges and gains achieved since 1 991 by the Kurdish parties were impossible without direct American backing and support.” For his efforts to alert the international community about such abuses by the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, though international pressure led to his release several months later.

Despite the corruption and repression–and occasional incidents of terrorism, bombings and ethnic strife–Iraqi Kurdistan has become the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq. The region hosts thousands of American troops, diplomats and businesspeople.

In early October 2007, the Kurdistan Regional Government signed an oil exploration agreement with Hunt Oil Company, a Texas-based operation with close ties to the Bush administration. The Iraqi government in Baghdad, which was completely bypassed in the deal, has declared the action illegal, but it appears that they will be unable to stop it.

U.S. military policy in Iraq has strained relations between Kurds and other Iraqis still further. With American troops already stretched thin and U.S. military leaders not trusting most Arab-dominated units of the Iraqi armed forces, the United States has relied extensively on Kurdish forces for counter-insurgency operations throughout Iraq, further inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Kirkuk, Mosul, and other areas with mixed Kurdish and Arab populations.

A Guerrilla Base

In terms of regional security, the most dangerous policy of the U.S.-backed Kurdish Regional Government has been its decision to allow its territory to become a base for separatist guerrillas to launch attacks against neighboring countries.

Iraqi Kurdistan has become the base of an Iranian Kurdish group known as PEJAK, which has launched frequent cross-border raids into Iran, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Iranians. Unlike the more conciliatory line taken by the traditional Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, PEJAK has been inspired by the quasi-independent status provided their brethren in Iraq to take a much harder line toward the Teheran government. There have been numerous reports that the U.S. government has provided equipment, training, and targeting information for PEJAK guerrillas. In retaliation, Iran has shelled and launched small-scale incursions into Iraqi territory against suspected guerrillas, actions strongly condemned by the United States.

Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has also led to increased nationalist activity among Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who constitute 10% of that country’s population, including scattered acts of nationalist violence. The Syrian government has responded with increased repression, which has also led to strong condemnation by Washington.

By far the biggest concern, however, is that the Turkish military response to attacks by the Iraq-based PKK against its territory could escalate dramatically, dwarfing the incursions of the 1990s.

This ongoing escalation along the Iraqi-Turkish border and the prospects of a greater conflict is not surprising. Indeed, prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of the major arguments by opponents of the war was that it could lead to the effective establishment of a Kurdish state led by nationalist guerrillas that would then destabilized the region, including reigniting a Turko-Kurdish war. Like the warnings about prospects of sectarian conflict, a rise of terrorism and Islamist extremism, and the prospects of U.S. forces becoming bogged down in a bloody urban counter-insurgency war, the Bush administration–with the support of a large bipartisan majority in Congress–went ahead with the invasion anyway.

Solutions to the Crisis

As with the other tragic results from the U.S. invasion, a solution to the crisis in Kurdistan is not easy. Given the close U.S. relations with both the Turkish government and the Kurdish Regional Government, however, as well as U.S. culpability in creating the current crisis in the first place, greater American leadership is critical.

On the Iraqi Kurdish side, the United States must insist that the Kurdish Regional Government crack down on PKK military activities inside their territory. Though the Turkish Kurds have many legitimate grievances against the government in Ankara, the PKK’s reliance on armed struggle-particularly their propensity to engage in acts of terrorism–has actually hurt the Kurdish cause, serving to legitimize the Turkish government’s repression. Allowing the PKK to continue to operate out of Iraqi territory puts Iraqi Kurds at risk as well. The Bush administration needs to make it clear that failure by the Kurdish Regional Government to rein in the PKK will mean an end to U.S. financial and strategic assistance.

Unfortunately, as long as the United States continues to support PEJAK military activities inside Iraqi Kurdish territory, including this PKK-allied group’s attacks into Iran, such demands will not be taken seriously. As a result, the U.S. must sever its ties to the PEJAK and insist that the regional government crack down on all such guerrilla activity.

On the Turkish side of the conflict, the United States should pressure the Turks–save for the right of hot pursuit–to honor Iraqi sovereignty and cease their attacks against suspected PKK targets inside Iraqi territory. Following the October 21 cross-border raid by PKK guerrillas, resulting in the deaths of 12 Turkish soldiers and the kidnapping of eight others, the United States condemned the attack but also called on Turkey to show restraint. However, given the strong bipartisan support given to Israel for its massive military onslaught against Lebanon following a cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerrillas which resulted in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others, Turkey may have little reason to take Washington’s pleas seriously. Any pressure on the Turkish government, which is dependent on the United States for much of its arms imports and foreign military training, to refrain from attacking neighboring countries must therefore be part of a broader critical re-evaluation of U.S. support for comparable actions by Israel and other allies.

The United States should also pressure Turkey to more carefully calibrate its counter-insurgency operations inside their country (and anywhere else) so to minimize civilian casualties. Indeed, such “collateral damage” has proven to be one of greatest recruitment tools for insurgencies. The United States should also encourage the Turkish government to offer amnesty to Kurdish nationalists willing to put down their arms, more fully recognize Kurdish civil and cultural rights, and allow the country’s Kurdish minority to advance their concerns nonviolently without fear of repression. Given the widespread civilian casualties resulting from U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and U.S. rejections of amnesty and other political compromises with Iraqi insurgents, the Turks may again have reason to reject such advice. As a result, these needed efforts to alter Turkish policies must be concomitant with a critical re-evaluation of U.S. counter-insurgency policy in Iraq and elsewhere.

In short, though the struggle by the Kurdish people and the governments which seek to control them pre-dates large-scale U.S. intervention in the region, it is American policy which has brought the situation to its current critical juncture and makes prospects for a just and peaceful solution so challenging. Perhaps, though, the current crisis will force the United States to re-think not just its disastrous policies in Iraq, but to also consider more seriously the need to more fully respect national sovereignty, support the right of self-determination and consider non-military alternatives to conflict.;col1

U.S. Denial of the Armenian Genocide

It continues to boggle the mind what the Democratic leadership in Congress will do whenever the Republicans raise the specter of labeling them “soft on terrorism.” They approve wiretapping without a court order. They allow for indefinite detention of suspects without charge. They authorize the invasion and occupation of a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us and then provide unconditional funding for the bloody and unwinnable counter-insurgency war that inevitably followed.

Now, it appears, the Democrats are also willing to deny history, even when it involves genocide.

The non-binding resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide attracted 226 co-sponsors and won passage through the House Foreign Relations Committee. Nevertheless, it appears that as of this writing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – in response to pressure from the White House and Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the “Global War on Terrorism” – will prevent the resolution from coming up for vote in the full House.

Call It Genocide

Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500 years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of execution, starvation, and related reasons.

Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that period, noted that, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact…” While issuing a “death warrant to a whole race” would normally be considered genocide by any definition, it apparently does not in the view of the current administration and Congress of the government he was representing.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United States, officially defines genocide as any effort “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Raphael Lemkin was the Polish Jewish lawyer who originally coined the term “genocide” in 1944. The earliest proponent of an international convention on its prevention and the punishment of its perpetrators, Lemkin identified the Armenian case as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments – including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia – and several UN bodies have formally recognized the Armenian genocide, as have the governments of 40 U.S. states. Neither the Bush administration nor Congress appears willing to do so, however.

Ironically, Congress earlier this year overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews. That same Congress, however, appears quite willing to refuse to acknowledge the Turkish genocide of the Armenians.

While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to dismiss those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust to the political fringe, it appears that tolerance for anti-Armenian bigotry is strong enough that it is still apparently politically acceptable to refuse to acknowledge their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure acknowledging the Armenian genocide claim argue that they are worried about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally.

In reality, however, if the Bush administration and Congress were really concerned about hurting relations with Turkey, Bush would have never asked for and Congress would have never approved authorization for the United States to have invaded Iraq, which the Turks vehemently opposed. As a result of the U.S. war and occupation of Turkey’s southern neighbor, public opinion polls have shown that percentage of the Turkish population holding a positive view of the United States has declined from 52% to only 9%.

Turkish opposition was so strong that, despite the Bush administration offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loan guarantees in return for allowing U.S. forces to use bases in Turkey to launch the invasion in 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to authorize the request. Soon thereafter, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with CNN in Turkey, expressed his disappointment that the Turkish military had not taken its traditional “leadership role” in the matter, which – given its periodic military intervention in Turkish governance – many Turks took as advocacy for a military coup. Furthermore, in testimony on Capitol Hill, Wolfowitz further angered the Turks by claiming that the civilian government made a “big, big mistake” in failing to back U.S. military plans and claimed that the country’s democratically elected parliament “didn’t quite know what it was doing.”

The United States has antagonized Turkey still further as a result of U.S. support for Kurdish nationalists in northern Iraq who, with the support of billions of dollars worth of U.S. aid and thousands of American troops, have created an autonomous enclave that has served as a based for KADEK (formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. KADEK forces, which had largely observed a cease fire prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting consolidation of the quasi-independent Kurdish region, have since been emboldened to launch countless forays into Turkish territory at the cost of hundreds of lives.

Since almost all House members who oppose this non-binding resolution on the Armenian genocide were among the majority of Republicans and the minority of Democrats who voted to authorize the invasion, antagonizing Turkey is clearly not the real reason for their opposition. Anyone actually concerned about the future of U.S.-Turkish relations would never have rejected the Turkish government’s pleas for restraint and voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq nor would they vote to continue U.S. funding of the pro-KADEK separatist government in northern Iraq.

Why a Resolution Now?

Another bogus argument put forward by President Bush and his bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill is that Congress should not bother passing resolutions regarding historical events. Yet these critics have not objected to other recent successful congressional resolutions on historic events: recognizing the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Jewish Committee, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, or commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, just to name a few.

These opponents of the resolution also claim that this is a “bad time” to upset the Turkish government, given that U.S. access to Turkish bases is part of the re-supply efforts to support the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. However, it was also considered a “bad time” when a similar resolution was put forward in 2000 because U.S. bases in Turkey were being used to patrol the “no fly zones” in northern Iraq. And it was also considered a “bad time” in 1985 and 1987 when similar resolutions were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were considered important listening posts for monitoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it is always a “bad time.”

The Bush administration, like both Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has refused to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. For example, under the Reagan administration, the Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that, “Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish Government committed genocide against the Armenian people.”

Similarly, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in President Bush’s first term, stated in 2002 that “one of the things that impress me about Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own minorities.”

The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon President Bush “to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian genocide, and for other purposes.” Therefore, if President Bush really doesn’t want Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do is make a statement acknowledging the genocide. Not surprisingly for someone with a notorious lack of knowledge of history, however, he has refused to do so. Bush has only gone as far as acknowledging that what happened to the Armenians was simply part of “a horrible tragedy” which reflects “a deep sorrow that continues to haunt them and their neighbors, the Turkish people,” even though Turkey has never expressed sorrow for their genocide.

Failure to pass a resolution calling on President Bush to acknowledge the genocide, then, amounts to an acceptance of his genocide denial.

Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable documentary record of the Armenian genocide, it would appear that at least some of those who refuse to go on record recognizing Turkey’s genocide of Armenians are, like those who refuse to recognize Germany’s genocide of European Jews, motivated by ignorance and bigotry. Claims that it would harm relations with Turkey or that the timing is wrong appear to be no more than desperate excuses to deny reality. If the Bush administration and members of Congress recognized that genocide took place, they should have no problem going on record saying so.

One problem may be that members of Congress, like President Bush, are themselves ignorant of history. For example, the Middle East scholar most often cited by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress as influencing their understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington’s Institute of Turkish Studies. In France, where genocide denial is considered a criminal offense, he was convicted in 1996 following a statement in Le Monde in which the emeritus Princeton University professor dismissed the claim of genocide as nothing more than “the Armenian version of this story.” The court noted how, typical of those who deny genocide, he reached his conclusion by “concealing elements contrary to his thesis” and “failed in his duties of objectivity and prudence.”

This is not to say that every single opponent of the resolution explicitly denies the genocide. Some have acknowledged that genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been convinced that it is contrary to perceived U.S. national security interest to state this publicly. This is just as inexcusable, however. Such people are moral cowards who apparently would be just as willing to refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust if the Bush administration told them that it might also upset the German government enough to restrict access to U.S. bases.

Though it has been Democratic members of the House, led by California Congressman Adam Schiff, who have most vigorously led the effort this time to recognize the Armenian genocide, opposition to acknowledging history has been a bipartisan effort. In 2000, President Bill Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress a similar bill after it passed the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full House. Currently, former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt has joined in lobbying his former colleagues on behalf of the Turkish government. And now, the current Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, despite having earlier promised to place it before a vote of the full House, appears ready to pull the bill from consideration.

Not only is this a tragic affront to the remaining genocide survivors and their descendents, it is also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed their government’s policies at that time and tried to stop the genocide, as well as to contemporary Turks who face jail by their U.S.-backed regime for daring to acknowledge it. If the world’s one remaining superpower refuses to acknowledge the genocide, there is little chance that justice will ever be served.

Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once asked, “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?” Failure to pass this resolution would send a message to future tyrants that they can commit genocide and not even have it acknowledged by the world’s most powerful countries.

Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those responsible for it in a historical context makes it easier to deny genocide today. In 1994, the Clinton administration – which consistently refused to fully acknowledge Armenia’s tragedy – also refused to use the word “genocide” in the midst of the Rwandan government’s massacres of over half that country’s Tutsi population, a decision that delayed the deployment of international peacekeeping forces until after 800,000 people had been slaughtered.

As a result, the fate of the resolution on the Armenian genocide is not simply about commemorating a tragedy that took place 90 years ago. It is about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of crimes. It is about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies. It is about whether we see our nation’s glory based on appeasing our strategic allies or in upholding our longstanding principles.