You have met the enemy, and he is you

Asia Times, Hong Kong
June 28 2004

You have met the enemy, and he is you

Disaster seemingly will attend the power transition in Iraq. Official
Washington has already reverted to its ancient traditions, in
particular the sacrificial rite of assigning blame. Within the George
W Bush camp, one hears that it was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s
fault for appointing L Paul Bremer as civil administrator in Iraq, or
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s fault for slighting the professional
military, or National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s fault for
not coordinating between the hostile camps on either side of the

It is a queer sort of disaster, to be sure. World stock markets are
rising, the price of oil is falling, and the exchange rate of the
dollar barely flutters in the crosswinds. Is it possible that markets
have judged matters better than the pundits? Perhaps it is no
disaster at all, except for the ideologues who argued that America’s
political model could be exported and assembled in Iraq like so much
prefabricated housing. A generation ago, American satirist Walter
Kelly amended Commodore Perry’s 1813 dispatch “We have met the enemy
and he is ours” to read, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

By the same token, one might say to the peoples of Mesopotamia: “You
have met the enemy, and he is you.” Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd have one
thing in common: they all eschew the American “melting pot” model of
democracy. They are determined to pursue their own tragic destinies

Last year, when American forces confounded the skeptics and swept
northward to Baghdad, I warned that it was no triumph (George W Bush,
tragic character,” Nov 25, 2003). Neither does the present impasse
make a disaster. Despite American policy, and despite America’s
enemies, the tragedy will unfold at its own pace. Iraq was not to be
saved in the first place (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance? Dec
23, 2003). America once produced leaders who recognized tragedy when
it confronted them; Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address
portrayed the terrible Civil War of 1861-1865 as redress for the sin
of slavery. Lincoln did not expect a favorable reception for his
view, and he was right. Although the words of the inaugural are
carved on the wall of Lincoln’s memorial, they are as obscure to the
Washingtonians of today as hieroglyphs to sightseers in Egypt.

America’s 42nd president cannot grasp that Americans comprise a tiny
minority who fled the tragedy of the nations. Those who remained in
the old country chose a tragic destiny. “Men are not flattered by
being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the
Almighty and them,” Lincoln wrote shortly after his second inaugural.
In full denial, the Bush cabinet remains captive to the fixed idea of
Middle Eastern democracy. Bush’s critics spin silly conspiracy
theories about America’s “real” intentions (grabbing oilfields,
turning Israel into a regional superpower, and so forth).

The kingpin of conspiracy theorists, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker,
sees an Israeli conspiracy behind the emergence of an independent
Kurdistan. In his dispatch of June 28, Hersh quoted a Turkish
official: “From Mexico to Russia, everybody will claim that the
United States had a secret agenda in Iraq: you came there to break up
Iraq.” Why should Washington care what Mexico thinks? And why should
Russia object to making the Turks miserable, especially if it
tightens the vice around the rebel Chechnyans?

One should learn more about the Kurds before portraying them as
puppets in anyone’s plot. If Aeschylus had scripted the tragedy of
peoples rather than heroes, the Kurds would have been at the top of
his list. In 1915, the “Young Turk” Ottoman government enlisted Kurds
to exterminate a million and a half Armenians during 1915-1923. More
Armenians died at Kurdish than Turkish hands. As their reward, the
Turkish government allowed Kurds to resettle the portion of Eastern
Anatolia then known as Western Armenia, that is, after killing or
driving out the entire Armenian population. That is why Kurds now
comprise a majority of the inhabitants of the former western Armenia,
and pose a continuing strategic threat to Turkey. I do not mean to
fault the Kurds; the neutral Swiss spent half a millennium earning
their keep as Europe’s mercenaries. Small peoples do not survive by
being squeamish.

One is tempted to think, “If the Kurds killed Armenians for land in
Eastern Anatolia, a fortiori they will kill Arabs for oil in Mosul.”
But the Kurds are fighting for something much greater, namely their
slim chance of escaping the great extinction of the peoples. “Unlike
animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny
who remember them,” I wrote on August 31, 2001, just before the
suicide attacks on New York and Washington (Internet stocks and the
failure of youth culture.) “Frequently, ethnic groups will die rather
than abandon their way of life. Native Americans often chose to fight
to the point of their own extinction rather than accept assimilation,
because assimilation implied abandoning both their past and their
future. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or
strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of life of a
people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another
culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.”

Tara Welat, a prominent Kurdish nationalist, cited my essay last
April 7 in a report on the Kurdish website “There
are competing claims concerning the will of oppressed nations to
survive. One view holds that by reason of their oppression, peoples
who are under constant pressure to assimilate eventually lose their
will to survive as a distinct people. They may live on a physical
existence, but eventually, they can no longer defend what makes them
unique. For evidence, contenders of such a view cite the fact that in
the last century 2,000 distinct ethnic groups have disappeared. The
other view maintains that people not only seek progeny but progeny
who remember them and to this end, humans will fight to the bitter
end to defend their way of life and to resist assimilation.”

Welat adds, “… While as a whole, the Kurdish people have survived,
for some Kurds, the temptation of assimilation has been all too
powerful … There are also other ideologies – aside from the
nationalist ideologies imposed on the Kurds by their colonizers –
namely Islam and socialism, which the Kurds have been willing to
accept, mostly at the expense of their Kurdish identity … I believe
that there is among the Kurds, enough people who love freedom for
itself and who will struggle for it obstinately until the Kurds enjoy

Welat makes clear why American policy must fail. The Kurds understand
from the inside, as it were, precisely what America is about, and
will have none of it: “As more and more countries become ‘melting
pots’, where cultures and identities are merged into a ‘mosaic’,
attempts to assimilate the Kurds will increasingly come under the
guise of democracy. Just as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 upon
his visit to America, we can confidently claim that ‘a great
democratic revolution is taking place among us’. This revolution has
swept through America and the West and it is now bursting through the
gates of the Middle East.”

Welat adds, “The argument of democracy tailored by the ruling regimes
to address the Kurds goes something like this: Why do you ask for
special rights or autonomy (or heaven forbid, independence) when we
can live as equals and brothers, with full freedoms, under one
(centralized) democratic state … We must question a conception of
democracy that is limited to creating a centralized state and which
will ultimately push for the homogeneity of its citizens.”

America will not succeed in assimilating the Kurds; a people who
consider Islam yet another foreign ideology imposed on them will not
worship de Tocqueville. As its policy crumbles in the region, the
Bush administration will ally with such forces as the Kurds – and the
tragedy will proceed to its next act.