Save the Kurds

William Safire

April 16, 1991|By William Safire

GEORGE BUSH'S answer to genocide is to insist angrily that "our kids" -- his new term of juvenile vulnerability for what he used to call America's armed forces -- will not be "sucked" by sinister outside pressure into anybody else's civil war.

That's the old straw man trick. Three weeks ago, when urged to order Saddam Hussein to freeze all movement of aircraft and armor -- which could have saved thousands of innocent lives without a single U.S. casualty -- Bush chose instead to go fishing.

Now the bloody consequences of his moral failure are on view: Americans watch in dismay as helpless and terrified millions are driven into exile, babies dying on the way. Perhaps to assuage his guilt, the U.S. president now creates a straw man: he accuses those who urged a freeze three weeks ago of having wanted to send our ground troops into an endless, millennium-old battle to end Arab tyranny.

Fortunately, his CYA rhetoric is accompanied by a tacit admission of terrible error. He has finally ordered Baghdad to cease killing refugees on pain of U.S. air retaliation. He has begrudgingly followed the lead of the British and French into a "duty to intervene," designating a portion of Iraqi Kurdistan off-limits to Saddam's vengeance; mass murder is no longer "an external affair."

Equally important, the president has directed our armed forces to take over the logistics of the refugee salvation from overwhelmed humanitarians.

That rescue assignment to our military is fitting, as a Washington Post "tick-tock" story now confirms that the fatal decision to allow Iraqi helicopter gunships to slaughter anti-Saddam rebels and terrorize Kurdish civilians was urged on Bush by Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, with only Vice President Quayle in dissent.

If Bush finds political cover in castigating those who urged him to do three weeks ago what he is doing belatedly, fine -- so long as he now moves to protect the persecuted Kurdish people. But if he blames the victims for "spoiling the victory" by inconveniently striving for freedom, that will compound his blunder.

The Kurds are not being unreasonably fearful in their exodus. They risk freezing and starvation not out of panic but to flee from certain extermination. Don't tell Massoud Barzani about amnesty: two of his brothers accepted such Iraqi offers in the past decade, to be executed -- burial alive -- by Saddam's sadistic thugs.

What's to be done with more than a million refugees? First, intervene without apology to provide emergency food and shelter. Next, set a global example by taking 25,000 Kurds into the United States as political refugees. Then give other Kurds and Christian Iraqis who fled an incentive of security -- guaranteed by the coalition -- to return to their villages in Iraq.

Ah, say the White House victim-blamers, but that would create a new Gaza Strip, where resentment would fester and warriors would breed; better to let Saddam Hussein succeed in his final solution to the Iraqi Kurdish problem, and let us drop sandwiches forever on homeless Kurds in camps in Turkey and Iran. (I can build a straw man, too.)

The way to give the Kurdish people the freedom they deserve is the same way to give Palestinian Arabs, including those driven from Kuwait, the freedom they deserve: create a new category of sovereignty.

The Kurds seek what Palestinian terrorcrats scorn: self-government, with cultural dignity respected, within the borders of an existing state. The anti-imperial '90s cry out for a form of apprentice nationhood or subsovereignty in enclave havens or in territories without clear title.

Not every dispute can be settled once and for all; not every aspiration for independence can be achieved or should be --ed ** with finality. Where political realities are fluid, diplomacy should be able to find a flexible arrangement that reflects the situation on the ground -- that encourages peaceful devolution rather than bloody revolution.

The word bandied about is "suzerainty," which allows the encompassing state a sovereignty limited to defense and central banking, while providing the inhabitants of a region with real autonomy and ethnic identity short of total independence.

Accommodationists, arise! Are diplomats so frozen, uprisers so blindered and international lawyers so hidebound that they cannot create new forms of national association to meet the demands of the times?

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