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The Next Battle in Iraq?

Demonstrators wave a huge Turkish flag in Istanbul last Sunday during a protest against attacks by Kurdish rebels.
Demonstrators wave a huge Turkish flag in Istanbul last Sunday during a protest against attacks by Kurdish rebels. (By Serkan Senturk -- Associated Press)

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 8, 2007

The relative stability and prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan provide the only bright spots of redemption for President Bush in the bloody anarchy that Iraq has become under a mismanaged occupation. Permanently securing the Kurdish minority from Baghdad's genocidal impulses and acts would be a historic accomplishment.

But the growing likelihood of Turkish military strikes into Iraq's northern region threatens to erase that last positive legacy of the American invasion -- and to undermine prospects for a major U.S. redeployment out of Iraq's chaotic cities to bases in the north in the near future. Eagerly sought by the Kurds, such redeployment is strongly opposed by Ankara, which listens to an urgently ticking electoral clock.

Managing Turkey's legitimate grievances against its own Kurdish rebels who take sanctuary among their Iraqi kin requires both agility and firmness from Washington. Thus far, the administration has shown neither quality in dealing with a devastated Iraq and its grasping neighbors. There is no better time than a moment of political extremis to change habits.

American failure in transforming Iraq has many causes. None is more important than Bush's inability to set clear, achievable priorities and to stick to them when they collide with the vested interests of Iraq's neighbors and of significant parts of the U.S. bureaucracy.

Bush has not followed his own counsel to the American people. Despite his rhetoric, he has not treated Iraq as the defining struggle of our time, one that requires sustained sacrifice and clarity of purpose. He has hopped from goal to goal and from faction to faction in the U.S. government, in Iraq and in the region, rather than pursue the steady, determined course that was -- and still is -- needed.

Consider his deferring to Sunni Arab governments rather than putting effective pressure on them to back U.S. efforts in Iraq. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have both gone to the region and urged Saudi Arabia's rulers to work with Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of the "national unity" Iraqi government that the administration helped bring to power last year.

"No," was the blunt answer from the Saudis, who let it be known they do not trust Maliki because they see him as an agent of Iran's Shiite ayatollahs. "Okay," perhaps accompanied by a shrug, seems to have been the considered bottom-line U.S. response.

Similarly, the administration has not conveyed a message that is clear and consistent enough to deter Turkey's politicians from issuing increasingly strident threats to invade Iraqi Kurdistan -- or to keep Turkish generals from massing forces on the border, as they have in recent weeks.

This is partly about politics: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party face a pitched battle for control of parliament in elections set for July 22. They must convincingly trounce the far-right Nationalist Movement Party to secure the commanding majority they need to enact far-reaching changes to the constitution. But NMP accusations that Erdogan is weak on Kurdish terrorism are boosting the right-wingers in the polls as time runs out.

But it is also about strategy: The generals, who compete with the politicians for influence in Turkish affairs, do not want a strong, U.S.-protected Kurdistan on their border. And they are upset over what they view as unkept promises from Washington to curb the small but murderous Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrilla force that operates from Iraqi territory, thereby relieving pressure on Ankara to intervene.

Neither the Pentagon nor the CIA appears to have stepped up to the mission. This inaction feeds Turkish suspicions that hidden anti-Iranian agendas and alliances among U.S., Saudi, Jordanian and other intelligence services have more influence over American priorities than do commitments from Bush or his senior aides.

A month ago, a consensus among trained observers and diplomats held that the Turks were unlikely to intervene despite their threats. That opinion is changing as disillusionment and electoral desperation take hold in Ankara. Moreover, predictions that any intervention would be limited to airstrikes and mopping-up operations by Turkish special forces at PKK sites are giving way to fears of a much larger operation that could be aimed at forestalling Kurdish control over the disputed Kirkuk region. Rice telephoned Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Friday to try to head off intervention but received no firm assurance.

A Turkish invasion that turns Kurdistan's relative calm into chaos and bloodshed would be the nail in the coffin for Bush's legacy in Iraq and for U.S. public support for the American presence there. Making sure this does not happen should be Priority One for Bush and for everyone working for him in the weeks ahead.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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