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11 November 2017

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.

By Bernard-Henri Lévy

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.

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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. 

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship