Idealism and realism are, in a sense, a kind of eternal struggle in international relations.
It might be tempting for some to dismiss the projects of Palestinian statehood and a future Kurdistan as merely another kind of cynical, opportunistic Realpolitik. However, I would like to take a mildly contrarian and sceptical look at this topic, and suggest that both projects, at bottom are not ‘pragmatic’ at all, but are actually highly Utopian and idealistic ventures.
Or in a word: enlightened naiveties.
First of all, let us look at a very current topic: the prospect of dissecting a few of the ailing body politics in the Middle East, in order to sow together a Kurdish state. Frankenkurd’s Monster, if you will!
Currently, arguments are indeed being made for such a project. For example, a recent article in the National Interest expresses doubt that the Syria of the past can ever return, or anything like it. Hence:
We believe lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that key challenges can only be overcome if the borders are redrawn, allowing the various nations of people to establish their own autonomous administrations with an agreed pathway, backed by the international community, to independence.
This may well be an entertainable perspective; to say that the relatively secular and pluralistic state of Syria is unlikely to return is not necessarily a priori ridiculous. However, it is no less clear that ‘redrawing borders’ is anything more than yet another ‘solutions-based’ approach to the Middle East, rather than a truly pragmatic ‘trade-off’ based approach. Borders can be redrawn, but it is impossible to redraw human hearts, and to engineer human souls and intellects, along with them. It is time for more Hayekian scepticism and Popperian humility than ever before, rather than less.
I am strongly convinced that for either Washington or Moscow to participate in such grand-style Utopian geopolitical engineering efforts would be extremely foolhardy.
First of all, is there indeed such a very large number of progressive and secular Kurds as is claimed, or might is this represent an exaggerated view of the matter?
Secondly, how far do they truly outnumber the notorious theocratic regressives, the Islamists?
Thirdly, might even a very small fraction of Islamists or other reactionaries cause a great deal of damage, and contribute to the further destabilization of the region?
Fourthly, are there any other regressive forces, other than the Islamists; whether latent or actualised? For example, ultranationalists or militarists? How easy is it to tell?
Fifthly, even if a new Kurdistan will have a preponderant influence of progressive and secular Kurds, what about the risk of future civil war in this region, by disgruntled Islamists? Or a Six-Day War by some irredentists in neighbouring countries? Or what if hostile states use a combination of making military threats and commissioning foreign terrorists and combatants; all the while providing moral and material succour to internal enemies of the Kurdish state, as well the same soft power infiltration techniques? E.g. Salafi Dawah and the funding of academic departments and institutions, that have being recently causing so much trouble in European countries?
These five questions (or more, depending on how you count them), are raised in relation to the question of a future Kurdistan; but many of them are also pertinent to the Palestinian question too. Of course, it is worth considering whether some of them are relevant to other contexts too, like Tibet, Xinjiang and Chechnya; even if appropriate modifications must be made for context.
Unless people are prepared to take these questions seriously and engage with them rigorously and systematically, in a non-tokenistic and non-gestural manner, the word ‘realist’ is hardly the most apt epithet for such individuals.
Secondly, let us turn to the topic of Palestine, where I will begin with an anecdote. Let’s have a look at this quote from an article about the reaction to former Pope Benedict XIV’s 2006 dispassionate comments on Islam, which were not critical of Islam or Muslims. Indeed the Regensburg address, if anything, may easily prove dissatisfactory for some of the critics of Islam!
“Violence erupted in some parts of the Middle East Saturday as Palestinians wielding guns, firebombs and lighter fluid attacked four churches in the West Bank town of Nablus, while gunmen opened fire at a fifth in Gaza.”
There’s a lot of talk about how Palestinians are owed a state.
I would like to see more talk however about how qualified Palestinians are for statehood. Even the IRA didn’t get up to some of the antics of a certain proportion of Palestinians. Between voting for Hamas, refusing to condemn secular or Islamist terrorists, and lobbying for privileges from the United Nations that are not granted (for example) to Kurdistan, Tibet, Xinjiang, or other contested parts of the world…
Is it reasonable to talk about how much any people deserve a state, without considering dispassionately and objectively how well qualified and equipped they are for such?
The fact is, statehood is not an inalienable right.
It is not something metaphysical, nor sentimental.
It is ultimately a political matter.
There is no ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Israel and Palestine.
Humanitarian crises don’t exist.
Every crisis is a political crisis; there isn’t a special kind of political crisis that is ‘humanitarian’ in character, and that therefore deserves special ‘sympathy points.’
It is important to remain hard-headed and dispassionate, and to remain unmoved by sentimental appeals to high-minded and emotive ‘humanitarian concerns.’
It is perhaps a little easy to forget that actually, the word ‘humanitarian’ and its associated cognate terms is generally used in order to imbue a factual situation with a very high moral and sentimental charge, in order to create an emotional bias in favour of some options, while ruling other options (including the rather poorly misnamed option of ‘doing nothing’) altogether out of court.
But if there is to be a Palestinian state, there must surely be an objective and dispassionate consideration of how many Palestinians are likely to be equipped for statehood, either as governors or as governed; how many are not; what kind of a balance of power between both factions is likely to result internal to a new Palestinian state; and how any non-Palestinians living in a state (if any) are likely to be affected by such power dynamics. And ultimately, one must also consider how such factors are likely to be affected by external actors, such as the Israeli government, Saudi-funded propagators of the Salafi Dawah, and many, many more.
No matter how many intelligent and rational Palestinians there are, it is by no means unlikely that they may be beaten down by the pro-Hamas and otherwise pro-terror fanatics.
There may not be any conclusive certainty on this score; but politics, and indeed geopolitics, should be about prudence, not absolute intellectual certainty and other pretentious red herrings of that ilk.
Giving independence to the Palestinians is like giving a toddler a flame-thrower, quite frankly.
Not all Palestinians are toddlers, of course; but there are enough ideologically and immature apples to turn the whole barrel a great deal more sour than is expedient either for Israelis, or for secular and progressively-minded Palestinians themselves.
If Palestinians want statehood, there is going to have to be less immature behaviour from a substantial proportion of their own people.
How much is a substantial proportion?
I am not going to provide you with a percentage. Just examine the history of the Israel-Palestine dispute. This much I will say:
I have seen no evidence that the statehood-ready Palestinians vastly outnumber the angry and ideologically-motivated ones.
And there is no reason to be certain, a priori, that removing one key source of grievance, the absence of a Palestinian state, will ever be enough. I know of no historical precedent where all the bitterness and resentment has just melted away, as soon as independence will be achieved. Do you expect that all Palestinians will be 100% satisfied with every aspect of a future deal?
And even if, for the sake of argument, intelligent and enlightened and secular Palestinians do indeed outnumber the PLF or even Hamas supporters, all you need is 0.1% or 0.01 or 0.001 % of violent hooligans to get things really kicking off.
Statehood is not an inalienable right.
It does not drop down from the sky in a golden bubble.
Autonomy and independence have to be earned.
“I want” doesn’t get.
And “My rights” doesn’t get you very much either.
After all, rights are inventions of human beings, and people need to be careful about sacralising them, and oversimplifying the highly complex political realities of human existence.
The foregoing discussions of Kurdistan and of Palestine owe a great deal (at least in spirit, if not to their precise details) to Hayek, rather than to any more Quixotian thinker.
And in this very spirit, it is extremely important to be aware of the unpredictable character of politics, and to recognise the necessary constraints on human knowledge; whether in terms of data collection, or in terms of interpretation; and indeed whether it is analysis of the present that is at issue, or forecasting the future.
The Palestinian and Kurdish questions must be handled with extreme care and sensitivity.
Highfaluting aspirations to restitute the dispossessed, or to create a new oasis of freedom in the Middle East, must ultimately succumb entirely to the kind of hard-headed, dispassionate, evidential reason that alone has a claim to the noble moniker of ‘science.’