HUMANITARIAN concerns aside, the U.S. decision not to help the Iraqi Kurds does not make much sense in pure cold-blooded geopolitical terms. The flight of millions of Kurds from their Iraqi homeland to the Turkish and Iranian frontiers may prove to be the prelude to a political disaster like that of the Middle East's other stateless people, the Palestinians.
Clearing Iraqi Kurdistan of its inhabitants has been the longtime dream of the Baathist regime in Baghdad. Ever since its rise to power in the late 1960s, it has used every device in its genocide machine, from mass executions to chemical bombs to the razing of entire settlements, to get rid of its Kurdish population.
By repeatedly asserting that the U.S. would not interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs, President Bush could not have given Saddam Hussein more timely help in making this dream come true. Bush and his chief ally, Prime Minister John Major of Britain, seem to have been converted to a politics of divine intervention, waiting for the hour when the heavens are torn asunder and the sinner of Baghdad is miraculously removed.
The saviors in this scenario, so Bush hopes, are Iraqi military officers -- the same men who are busy right now massacring Kurds and Shiites by the thousands. There could hardly be a less glorious vision for an American president who hopes to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. No Iraqi officers will be naive enough to trust American exhortations and try to topple their master. And few have any reason to do so anyway.
For many people of the region, the American undertaking that began last August has only brought more suffering and distress. The exodus of millions of Kurdish refugees is matched only by previous flights in this century of the Armenians, the Palestinians and the Afghans.
The creation of a security enclave for the Kurds in northern Iraq, through a plausible humanitarian measure that tries to undo the Wests' earlier neglect, does not address their political aspirations. It is yet another painful compromise in the face of American and European wishes to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity.
If Saddam manages to permanently dislodge a substantial portion of Kurds -- and there is every indication he is succeeding in doing so -- he will create a political problem no less severe than that of the Palestinians. And it is only logical to assume that the ensuing struggle between Kurdish guerrillas and the Iraqi Army would involve Iran and Turkey and thus destabilize the border areas of three countries -- an outcome the U.S. said it was trying to avoid.
Those who piously advocate American non-intervention in the so-called domestic affairs of Iraq seem to be oblivious to the dangerous potential that Saddam's reprisals have unleashed. Not only will the Kurds' dislocation and inevitable struggle to reclaim their homeland contribute to troubles in the region; it is also likely that they, as well as the Shiites in the south, will blame the U.S. for their plight.
It is sheer naivete to believe that the good will of the Saudi royal clan, which was apparently influential in the White House's decision not to interfere with Saddam's crackdown, or that of the docile Kuwaiti oligarchy is any guarantee for political stability and regional security.
In spite of the liberation of Kuwait and destruction of a portion of the Iraqi Army, the internal vulnerabilities that produced a violent aggressor like Saddam remain still firmly in place in Iraq.
It is sanguine to think that Baathist Iraq, with the world's second-largest oil reserves and a history of secret arms deals with willing Western partners, will be bound by lukewarm U.N.-mandated sanctions. And it is all but inevitable that, with or without Saddam, new military dictators will create new disasters.
Today's Kurdish and Shiite calamities and tomorrow's prospects of other aggressions should have awakened the U.S. to fatal flaws in its conduct and to the need for carrying out a more consistent and enduring policy in the Middle East.
Abbas Amanat is associate professor of history at Yale.