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The US will rue its betrayal of the Kurds

I know of no other example of a great power abandoning one of its oldest allies for no apparent reason.

We know more or less about the unbearable epilogue to Kurdistan’s hundred years of solitude being written before our eyes. We know, too, about the craven abandonment of the Kurds to the “New Gang of Four”, right up until the ceasefire of 28 October.

To Iran, whose revolutionary guards received in effect a green light to conduct themselves as if they were on conquered territory, and thus try their hand at wielding influence from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman.

To Turkey, which, in the manner of Schrödinger’s cat being simultaneously dead and not dead, is both in Nato and out of it, using that freedom of movement to exact historical vengeance against the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

To Syria, whose murderous puppet of a dictator now reigns, to borrow a phrase from the French poet Louis Aragon, over “a country flayed by butchers”. 

And finally to Iraq, that factitious country that never existed except in the dizzy mind of a British diplomat a century ago, crushing a free, democratic and peace-loving people under the boots of its heavily armed militias.

By contrast, insufficient attention has been paid to the frightening mystery posed in this affair by the attitude of the United States. What continues to astonish at the end of weeks of cynicism and strategic cowardice, is the spectacle of Donald Trump, the allegedly brilliant deal-maker and peerless player who putatively wins all his bets. It is the image of this “tough guy”, who supposedly misses no opportunity to set himself apart from Obama, the spineless intellectual.

What astonishes is the incredible inconsistency of a man who declared one morning that the agreement with Iran was the worst pact his country had ever signed and then, later that same day, welcomed Iran’s General Soleimani into the streets of Kirkuk, shifting shamelessly from Obama’s convenient strategy of “leading from behind” to a tragic and truly incomprehensible “leaving for nothing”.

In my long life, I cannot recall such a bewildering moral and political forfeiture. I know of no other example of a great power abandoning one of its oldest and most loyal allies for no apparent reason. And I can think of no sorrier spectacle than that of watching these Kurdish fighters, tolerant Muslims and ramparts against Isis, be delivered up and cut to pieces by a rabble wielding weapons and Abrams tanks furnished to them by the Americans.

But that is where things stand. And, for a friend of the US, it is wrenchingly painful. The country of Kennedy and Reagan no longer has any sacrosanct allies in the region. And, for the leaders of the Gang of Four, for this bunch of brutes drunk on impunity, hubris and, no doubt, hateful vengeance for the American master they so long feared, it is as if the house of cards that was the Pax Americana suddenly collapsed, opening the way to no end of adventures.

This was the geopolitical equivalent of a stock market crash, the haunting moment when the world discovered that the fiduciary value of the US president and his department of state was almost zero. The emperor, in other words, was naked, his securities were no longer worth the paper they were printed on, and the American colossus had crumbled into a pile of diplomatic sub-primes.

These days in Washington, “Thucydides’s trap” is much discussed, owing to Graham Allison’s book of the same name. On everyone’s mind is that fearful instant – fearful because it almost invariably leads to war – when the old hegemonic power grasps that, due to its own failures and weaknesses, it may have to yield to the newcomer.

In America’s treatment of Kurdistan we glimpse Athens and Sparta switching roles. Remember Pericles, the wise strategist, whose death and the popular disregard of his message brought forth the ruin of the great democratic city state of Athens.

Pericles warned those of his fellow citizens who were inclined to cowardice and laxity. He told them that prestige was a responsibility that could not be shirked. And he predicted that, if his fellow citizens failed to heed his warning, they would slide quickly into “peaceful enslavement”.

In equating Kurds and Iraqis, President Trump has come down on the wrong side of the Thucydides theorem – at the expense of the US. The Athens of our time, the most prestigious and democratic of nations, runs the risk of throwing itself headlong into peaceful enslavement and leaving the remains of its influence to the several menacing Spartas that, from Ankara to Moscow and Beijing, have already begun to salivate.

Today it is the Kurds who taste the bitter fruit of the new “plot against America”; this one, in contrast to that imagined by Philip Roth, conducted openly, with the enemy advancing undisguised. Tomorrow, unless we correct our course, it will be peoples in other free cities in other regions of the planet who will pay the price. 

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”