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A Case for the Peace Movement 

What the left should do now that missiles are flying

Thursday, Apr 3 2003
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Much of the left-wing press has been gnashing its teeth recently over the ongoing street demonstrations against the war in Iraq. The arguments against them basically boil down into two categories. The more persuasive is practical and addresses actions like the disruptions of traffic. These lie-downs in the middle of rush hour, this objection runs, simply alienate people and do nada to advance the cause of peace. It’s an arguable point, but has its sway.

The second objection is presented as if it’s just as simple, but it’s a trap that, if it convinces enough people, could simply leave the left in a state of inertia. According to this argument, since the war has started, protest against it or its coverage is useless. The left should stand by and wait for the U.S. to finish pressing the battle as quickly and as bloodlessly as possible and somehow take part in the reformation of Iraq. Specifically, it should help democratic elements take control of the government, aid the northern Kurds in their struggle to ward off the Turks, and protect the Shiah in the south from encroaching Iranian medievalists.

The problem with this argument is that it surrenders to a simplistic theory of history that is both extremely convenient and comforting to people in the developed world. It completely robs indigenous people of their (theoretical) rights and denies their abilities to form their own futures. It also puts supposed left-wingers in the position of ideological imperialists (hello, Joe Stalin!).

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Take, for example, the argument about protecting the Kurds from the Turks. One might just as well ask who is going to protect the Kurds from the Kurds. Americans seem vaguely aware of the civil war fought between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1996, when the KDP invited the Iraqi army in to help them defeat their rivals of 21 years. But these two factions, which control the two enclaves of Kurdish northern Iraq, fought again in 1997.

At that time, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, had made incursions from its base in southeastern Turkey into Iraq. The PKK, headed by Abdullah Ocalan, was locked in a decadelong guerrilla war with the Turkish army, a struggle that had seen gross human-rights violations committed by both sides. Underlying the struggle, of course, was the Turkish government’s brutal suppression of Kurdish culture, language and ethnicity itself.

That doesn’t explain why, once over the border in Iraq, the Turkish-based PKK murdered Iraqi Assyrians and Kurdish supporters of the KDP. The KDP, which was tied up fighting the PUK, invited the Turkish army onto its territory to take on the PKK, and the temporary alliance triumphed. With the job done, the Turks left.

Through all of this, the KDP has been helping to oversee the black-market trade in Iraqi oil to Turkey, keeping its roads safe for the tanker trucks and collecting fees at the Turkish border.

Not only are Kurdish relations far more complicated than generally acknowledged, but where has all this sudden American concern for the Kurds come from, anyway? They have been treated badly for decades, yet no one has lifted a finger to help them. Neither the American government nor the American right nor the American left has made human rights for Kurds an issue. These poor, war-encumbered people have lived in the shadow of hot-spot nations, a footnote that parachuted correspondents and cocktail-party experts use to bolster their worldly bona fides to a credulous audience.ä

The most hideous example of this Johnny-come-lately concern is the constant invocation of Saddam Hussein’s massacre at the Kurdish village of Halabja in March of 1988. I think it can be safely said that less than one-half of 1 percent of the people who keep invoking this ghastly event even knew of the atrocity at the time. Do you think George W. Bush stood and wept when he got the news? Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam just weeks before; did he plead for justice for the Kurds? And how about the leftists who now urge us to fly to the side of the Kurds — what was their response 15 years ago?

The “concern” for the Kurds now does, however, provide a plausible excuse for the Bush administration to maintain a lengthy occupation of the northern Iraqi oil fields around Kirkuk. Instant experts in the press can harrumph that the city is the Kurds’ “Jerusalem,” a Kurdish occupation a prelude to a revolutionary Kurdistan and a provocation for a Turkish military response. Hence, the neutral Americans will just have to sit there, on top of all that oil.

What, in the name of heaven, is the American left to do about this? First, it can stop falling for thinly veiled diversions from the central issue. The idea that somehow the American left (and a bigger bunch of softies you’ll never find) can or should somehow intervene in a situation as complicated as Kurdistan is absurd.

The left is falling susceptible to the same cowboy impulses it accuses Bush of harboring. What’s needed is a cold, hard look at what’s looming after the war. Thanks to Saddam Hussein’s suicidal resistance plan, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis seem about to die from bullets and bombs. Many will have their physical or mental health shattered. Because the Bush administration seems to have no plan for postwar medical and food aid, some untold number may die from disease and starvation after the shooting stops.

The left also has to look at the American cost. A blustering old fool of a defense secretary has sent an almost criminally undermanned, underprepared and undersupplied fighting force into Iraq. The casualties taken so far are bad enough, but the enormity of what’s going to happen in Baghdad is nearly incomprehensible. Most of the soldiers who will be fighting street-to-street and building-to-building will be young men or even boys with almost no combat experience and little training in urban warfare. Cagey Iraqi soldiers will have a clear advantage as far as the terrain goes. Plus, American soldiers will be facing a fanatical enemy with no compunction over using civilians as shields. In the panic and cloud of war, these untried young people will be forced to choose between dying — and letting their comrades die — or shooting civilians.

The left has to be ready to explain and demonstrate the exploitation on both sides. Saddam and Bush and their respective apparatchiks have each betrayed their people. When it comes to receiving help, as members of the middle class (which they largely are) they have to resort to the resources assigned to their class — donations of money, time and effort to relief groups that help the Iraqis, lobbying politicians to provide therapy for returning soldiers, or just whatever expressions of kindness can be extended to those victimized by the monsters who set this war in motion.

If there isn’t a massive Arab uprising and there are no substantive changes in the White House, eventually a technocratic government headed by University of Chicago–type economists will be left in charge of Iraq. They’ll impose a form of laissez-faire capitalism that will leave the country ripe for the picking, while the existence of a pro forma parliament, or some kind of consultative council based on ethnicity and tribe, will provide the usual democratic fig leaf. Within a few years, you’ll see environmental devastation and class impoverishment begin to set in.

That’s why demonstrations are all the more urgent. Faced with history’s inexorable onslaught, it’s tempting to succumb to defeatism. But along with simple humanity, the left still has to offer a vision of the future utterly distinct from the Hobson’s choice now laid before the Iraqi people. That has to be a future where they enjoy respite from the ceaseless tug and pull of larger nations and from the native despots forged from the ensuing resentment. Many Americans are being narcotized into thinking the war will end when the last shot is fired in Baghdad, but the average Iraqi will be besieged for years to come if no one does anything. The first meaning of demonstrate is “to show clearly,” and that’s what the anti-war left has to do. To demonstrate — in the streets, the last outlet left to it — that there’s an international will to peace that extends even across the U.S. and beyond the parameters of conventional wisdom.

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