The eyes of the world are fixed uneasily upon a referendum about to be held in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Kurds will, undoubtedly, vote for an independent homeland. It is widely felt that the fate of these people is coming to a head, their freedom calling, and war looming. Nervously, Western leaders are pressuring the Kurds to postpone the vote, as they eye the alliance forming between the Sunni dictatorship in Ankara and the Shiite theocracy in Tehran which, at last, have found a common interest: crushing Kurdish independence. The possibility of a free Kurdistan is perhaps the only flower to have grown out of the rubble of the 2003 Iraq war, but scarcely a flower grows in the Middle East without an army boot eager to trample it.
The West’s failure to support Kurdish aspirations says something unflattering about the moral bravery of our generation. In pitiless realpolitik, Western leaders are correct that there are costs and risks to helping the Kurds gain statehood. Backing them will strain important relationships in Ankara and Baghdad. The heavily armed nations of Iran and Turkey may join forces to blow apart Iraqi Kurdistan, which is to date the most stable area of the country, with a parliamentary democracy and a growing economy. Already a fire-breathing Turkish politician has called the referendum “a reason for war,” while an Iranian general bellowed that the Kurdish desire for freedom is “unacceptable.” United in their bitter hostility, these two great regional powers could gobble up the cities of Dahuk and Irbil and Halabja – but then the question remains whether they’ll be able to digest all those other proud Kurds in the world, thirty million in number, scattered across the Middle East. It may well turn out that Turkey and Iran will devour much of Kurdish Iraq, but not without inflaming an already resentful, battle-hardened Kurdish population, some of whom will no doubt seek to trigger some mayhem of their own in the streets of Istanbul and Tehran. That should give Turkish and Iranian leaders some pause.1 And, even before that possible nightmare, they must wonder whether the United States would simply stay on the sidelines if they began shooting up all that the Americans helped build in northern Iraq.
The question of Kurdistan is indeed complicated, teeming with dangers, fraught with uncertainties, but make no mistake: it is an ethical litmus test for the West, a moral conundrum perhaps not seen since the creation of the modern state of Israel. Like the Jews, the Kurds have been brutalized and oppressed; their ancient culture dishonored, their contracts violated, their holy lands invaded, their children gassed.
Many observers say that the Kurdish referendum will “destabilize” the Middle East, but that misses the point: for Kurds, the region has never been stable. From 1920 until 2003, Kurds in Iraq suffered one appalling crime after another. “The Anfal campaign, chemical bombardment, the destruction of our villages, the mass graves, genocide — that was the lot of the Kurds from this time in its relations with Baghdad,” Kurdish President Masoud Barzani observed, expressing the nearly universal hurt of his people.
Nor has there been much stability following the 2003 American-led invasion. Indeed, whatever stability can be said to exist in Iraq is in no small part thanks to sacrifices of the Kurds themselves, who for years struggled in vain to form a unity government with their unreliable Arab neighbors to the south. Leaders in Baghdad now whine that the Kurdish flag flies over Kirkuk, forgetting that their own frightened soldiers not long ago abandoned that old and venerable city to ISIS. The city would still be in the blood-soaked hands of the Islamic State if not for the mettle of the Kurdish Peshmerga. And many Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, and Shiites elsewhere in the country would likewise be dead or enslaved but for the bravery of Kurdish men and women. Gratitude comes in many flavors, but ingratitude is always sour. No longer do Kurds have patience for Western officials who seem to tell them to remain contentedly as others’ foot soldiers. “Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters, expressing his disapproval of the Kurdish referendum – on the ludicrous premise, apparently, that a free Kurdistan would somehow not be an even more lethal foe to the Islamic State.
Turkish and Iranian spokesmen give dire warnings that an independent Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq will set a dangerous precedent. Their own restive Kurdish minorities, they claim, will violently seek to create yet more Kurdish states. But again, ask the Jews whether the establishment of Israel led to additional Jewish homelands. After Israel was formed, nearly a million Jews either fled or were expelled across the Middle East. These refugees didn’t agitate for more states; they were grateful for the small country they could run to. Instead of opposing a Kurdish homeland, the potentates of Turkey and Iran should instead see it as their best hope rather than worst fear – since it finally offers the chance to reach a diplomatic agreement with their Kurdish subjects, offering the choice to remain peacefully in Turkey and Iran or migrate to a newly established Kurdistan. This assumes, of course, that Turkish and Iranian authoritarians truly would prefer to reach an amicable settlement rather than to indulge their will to power. One mustn’t discount the possibility that delight in domination is a motivation in this conflict, just as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud taught us about human nature in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Much of the current crisis, then, might just be more psychological than political, arising because the sight of repressed Kurds flatters the pride of Turkish and Iranian strongmen. But if that’s the case, it raises a question: Why should those of us who believe in classical liberal ideals, who seek the expansion of human freedom, go along with such ugly ethnic chauvinism? Are liberals in the West “to act as a press agent for two dictatorships that detest us,” as Bernard-Henri Lévy put it? In respect to history, classical liberals – authentic liberals – have but one duty: to help human beings make some advance toward freedom, to unshackle a specific people, to end some mode of tyranny – and all that is what the vote in Kurdistan is about.
Western leaders and policymakers who bemoan the referendum can, if they choose, flatter themselves as “realists.” And, true, they are not speaking from the philosophical tradition of Locke and Lincoln and Mill. But the irony here is that violence will be more likely, not less, if the Kurdish people aren’t allowed to express their visceral desires through a democratic process. History teaches that we ought to tread carefully around liberty-longing people with pent-up political rage. Up till now, Iraqi Kurds have been more than restrained, loyal to the West, sacrificing much for the American-led coalition. Without a political path toward their dream of statehood – without “a street empty of bloodstains,” to borrow words of Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmad – at least some of them will likely conclude that democracy has failed, leaving them no other choice but guerrilla warfare and chaos.
And that will be dreadful compared to supporting their vote on September 25th.
 I want to stress that, throughout this essay, I am speaking of the Turkish and Iranian political and military leadership, and not the Turkish and Iranian people who are victims of their illiberal governments.
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