Q. Why do you think people in the U.S. and even in other places of the world have been optimistic about Obama and his administration?
A. Two basic reasons. One is that they are glad to be rid of Bush. The brazen arrogance of his administration and its contemptuous defiance of world opinion drove the US standing in the world to historic lows. Almost any replacement would have been welcomed. The second reason is that Obama presents himself as an appealing person who offers partnership and conciliation, and as a kind of “blank slate” on which people can write their hopes and wishes. The serious question, always, is what is the substance behind the congenial surface? I have written elsewhere about that (as have others), and will not repeat. In brief, he is coming close to fulfilling Condolezza Rice’s prediction that his administration will extend the foreign policy of the second Bush term, which took a softer line and less confrontational line on many issues than the first.
Q. How do you assess U.S. policy toward Iraq in general and towards the Kurds specifically under Bush? And how do you expect it to be under Obama?
A. The Bush administration adopted a relatively favorable stance towards the Kurds because they were the one segment of Iraqi society that was supportive of the invasion and occupation — relatively. It was strongly opposed to Kurdish autonomy, for general geostrategic reasons. It presumably saw the Kurdish parts of Iraq as a potential base for US power, aligned more or less openly with Israel, Washington’s major client in the region. Obama has said very little, but I would expect his policies to be similar.
Q. What will be the impact of Obama’s “withdrawal plan” in Iraq on the stability of Iraq and the political process there?
A. Obama has has indicated that he will abide by the Status of Forces agreement that Bush was compelled to accept, after backing down, step by step, in the face of mass non-violent resistance that the occupying army could not control, and at the very end, abandoning major war aims. Right now there is a conflict over the referendum that is required by the SOFA. Obama is pressuring the Iraqi government not to carry it out. The reasons are stated quite openly: his administration fears that the population will call for more rapid withdrawal of the occupying forces.
Q. In your opinion, what will a liberal internationalist approach of the kind Obama seems to favour, bring to separatist ambitions in general and the Kurdish question in particular?
A. The important word in the question is “seems.” Obama’s public posture is forthcoming and congenial, and has an aura of liberal internationalism. There is no indication that he would consider an independent Kurdistan, and it is highly unlikely, in the light of US geostrategic commitments. The question of justice is mostly a matter of rhetoric, as in the past. Kurds and others lacking power should be clear-headed about such matters, and not succumb to illusions. The best advice is: pay attention to the facts, and do not be beguiled by rhetoric and empty promises.
Q. “We Are Not At War With Islam”, this is what Obama said during his recent visit to Turkey. Do you think, as some suggest, this new approach towards the Islamic world will be “End of the Clash of Civilisations”?
A. There was no beginning to the “Clash of Civilisations” so it cannot have an end. Simply consider the circumstances at the time when the doctrine was promulgated by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. The most populous Muslim state was Indonesia, a close US ally since 1965, when General Suharto carried out a murderous coup, killing hundreds of thousands of people and opening up the country’s rich resources to the industrial societies. He remained an honored friend though innumerable crimes at home and abroad, among them the invasion of East Timor, which came about as close to genocide as any event of the modern period. He remained “Our kind of guy,” as the Clinton administration declared in 1995, and maintained that status until he lost control and the US determined that his time was over. The most extreme fundamentalist Muslim state was Saudi Arabia, Washington’s oldest and most valued ally in the region. At the time Washington, was bringing to a bloody end its murderous wars in Central America, specifically targeting the Catholic Church. Its practitioners of “liberation theology” sought to bring the radical pacifist lessons of the Gospels to the peasant society that was suffering under the yoke of US-imposed tyrants. That was clearly unacceptable, and they became primary victims of Washington’s terrorist wars. One of the “talking points” of the famous School of the Americas is the proud boast that the US army “defeated liberation theology.” If we continue, we find familiar confrontations, but no “clash of civilizations” — a notion that was constructed at the end of the Cold War as a pretext for policies undertaken for other reasons, also familiar. Bush’s policies evoked enormous hostility in the Muslim world. Quite sensibly, Obama is trying to reduce the hostility, though there is no indication of a substantive change in policies or motives.
Q. What is your advice and recommendations for the Obama administration in relation to U.S. policy in Iraq and towards the Kurds?
A. I cannot respond. I disagree with the foundations of policy, and cannot offer advice within that framework.