Into the Kurdish Quagmire

Clinton's attack on Iraq may help him with voters, but could make his second term miserable.

By Jonathan Broder
Published September 3, 1996 6:26PM (EDT)


As if President Clinton weren't already laughing all the way to re-election, along comes America's favorite bogeyman, Saddam Hussein, offering himself as a punching bag to further burnish Clinton's image as president and commander-in-chief.

However, even though Saddam will inevitably retreat under a hail of American missiles -- while Clinton's poll numbers rise even further -- this imbroglio in the Kurd's protected zone in northern Iraq may come back to haunt the president in his second term, possibly dragging him into another Balkan-style conflict with region-wide implications.

"Whatever the reason, the United States is now involved," said
Graham Fuller, a Middle East specialist at the Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica-based think tank, and a former senior official in the CIA. "The question is which part of U.S. policy in the region will get priority."

While Clinton today portrayed the U.S. attacks on Iraqi air defense systems as the actions of an impartial world policeman operating under United Nations resolution, his actions put the U.S. in the middle of a 20-year-old struggle between two Kurdish factions, one supported by Iraq, the other by Iran.

Most immediately at stake are tens of millions of dollars in transit fees to be earned by whichever of the factions emerges triumphant in northern Iraq from the transshipment of Iraqi oil through a pipeline that runs through neighboring Turkey under a U.N. plan to allow Iraq to export oil in exchange for food and medicine.

Before Saddam's assault, according to George Hamarneh, editor of the Jordan Times, the Iranian-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had the upper hand in the region, establishing its headquarters in Irbil. But the PUK's dominance would have strengthened Iran in its bitter long-standing rivalry with Iraq. Fearing defeat, the rival Kurdish faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, requested Iraqi intervention under the guise of advancing autonomy for his people.

The result: Iraq's quick thrust into northern Iraq last Saturday and its capture of Irbil in coordination with fighters of the KDP. At an Oval Office news conference Tuesday, Clinton went out of his way to stress that the U.S. was not taking sides in the internecine Kurdish strife. He said the missile attacks were carried out to punish Saddam for violating the safe haven that the United States and its allies established in northern Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991.

In one sense, American military action represents a failure of policy in the region. In addition to establishing the safe haven, Washington had sought unity between the factions, a policy that turned out to be a mirage.

The broader goal, according to Fuller, was to prevent the zone from becoming a launchpad for Kurdish attacks against Turkey, an important U.S. ally, while restricting Saddam's freedom of action within Iraq and continuing to isolate Iran at the same time. The lesson of the recent events, Fuller says, is that the United States can no longer have it all.

America's biggest concern, he argues, is Saddam, and therefore the Clinton administration should focus on keeping him weak. But that means reaching a new understanding with Iran, whose rivalry with Iraq can help to contain the Iraqi leader. He says the United States must also put pressure on the new Islamic-led government in Ankara to reach an accommodation with the Kurds, who have been struggling for greater autonomy in their ancestral lands in eastern Turkey.

"Sooner or later, the Turks are going to have to learn to live
with the Kurds," Fuller says. "It might as well be sooner, because too much is at stake throughout the Middle East."

Complicating matters further is an upsurge in anti-American public opinion -- spurred by problems in the Mideast peace process -- in Arab countries, a factor Saddam doubtless took into account when he launched the Iraqi incursion. It explains Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's refusal to support the U.S. attack and the silence in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that were part of the anti-Saddam coalition in 1991. Such a response also underscores their opposition to any moves that would strengthen the Tehran regime, which they believe continues to try to undermine their own governments.

With Bob Dole and other Republicans screaming from the sidelines about his "lack of leadership," President Clinton has to perform a delicate diplomatic and military juggling act. On one hand, he has to appear to be standing firm against Saddam the aggressor. On the other, he wants to contain Iranian influence, weave his way through the volatile politics of Kurdish autonomy and keep the Middle East peace process on track.

If keeping all those balls in the air was difficult before the latest U.S. military action, it just got a lot harder.

Jonathan Broder contributes regularly to Salon. He is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report and senior producer for the weekend edition of "All Things Considered."

Is Clinton doing the right thing in Iraq? Join the discussion in Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Crying all the way to the polls

"There's a real danger here -- no one's going to vote for Alan Alda for president. If I were Dole, the only time I'd cry again is when Bill Clinton won re-election, and then all of us will weep."

-- GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos on the lachrymose trend in American poltitics.
(From "Boo Who? Virtually Everyone in Politics These Days, It Seems," in Monday's

Wall Street Journal

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------