Is the left becoming suspicious of the idea of self-determination for stateless ethnic groups, just as the right warms up to it?
by: Martin W. Lewis
I have been wondering for some time how the issue of self-determination for so-called stateless nations fits into the standard, one-dimensional political spectrum. Historically, those on the left have been more favorably disposed to “national liberation struggles” than those on the right, who have more often advocated stability and the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo. By the same token, most of the best-known groups of the late 20th century that sought the independence of their homelands staked out positions on the left, and often on the far left. Prominent examples here include the Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Catalan and Basque separatists in Spain, and Quebecois separatists in Canada. Even support for Scottish independence tilts left, and I suspect that most international advocates of a “Free Tibet” lean in the same direction.
Recently, however, several opinion pieces have made me wonder whether the poles might be shifting on this matter. Is the left becoming suspicious of the idea of self-determination for stateless ethnic groups, just as the right warms up to it? Two problematic and utterly opposed articles command my attention in this regard. From the left comes Max Fisher’s “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” published in Vox on August 5, 2015. From the right comes Josh Gelernter’s “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” published in The National Review on September 4, 2015. One should, of course, be wary of reading too much into such a limited selection of idiosyncratic writings. As such, the current post should be read as merely exploratory rather than as conclusive in any way.
Before examining these two articles, it is necessary to consider the political spectrum itself. I am intrigued by the uncertain position of the self-determination question in part because it unsettles the very idea of a one-dimensional continuum of political belief, a notion that remains omnipresent no matter how often and how effectively it is challenged. As has often been noted, the extreme left and the extreme right often bear more resemblance to each other than they do to either the moderate left or the moderate right respectively. Equally significant, there are no logical reasons why many of the various beliefs that constitute the current mainstream “left” and “right” viewpoints necessarily belong together. A number of specific positions that were once counted as firmly “left” are now more often deemed “right,” and vice versa. To be sure, the political beliefs of most people can readily be placed on such a spectrum, but there are millions who simply don’t fit—as well as entire political movements premised on thwarting the very notion of a right-left continuum (that of the libertarians being the most prominent example).
Max Fisher’s Vox article, “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” takes a rather extreme position against the self-determination of ethnic groups, or at least those that happen to be found in Iraq. Joe Biden’s “terrible plan” in question, proposed with Leslie Gelb in 2006, was designed to preserve rather than eliminate Iraq as a country. But Biden and Gelb argued that ethnic animosity had had reached such a level that it had become difficult if not impossible for Iraq to function as a unitary state. Instead, they argued, a federal system should be contemplated, one that would accord a significant degree of autonomy to Iraq’s three main group, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the Kurds. The model that they proposed was that of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a country whose highly decentralized, ethnically based system of government had brought effective peace to what had been a war-shattered region.
Fisher pours contempt on the idea of such a decentralized, federally constituted Iraq. He argues that it would “enshrine sectarianism,” Iraq’s actual font of discord, into law. As such, its regional governments would only “give … citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.” The solution, as Fisher sees it, is simply to eliminate sectarian impulses:
The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.
Although the idea of overcoming ethnic divisions is laudable, making it happen is another matter altogether. Here, Fisher has virtually nothing to say beyond blaming the United States for Iraq’s turmoil and asking a number of rhetorical questions that he admits have “no real answers.” As a result, Fisher’s proposals are almost laughable naive. In actuality, Iraq is at present effectively divided into three regions, with the officially recognized “national” government controlling the south, the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government the northeast, and ISIS the northwest. As can be seen from the paired maps posted here, the current fit between ethnic groups and political control is close indeed. The idea of the intrinsic nationhood of Iraq as a whole has lost most of the power that it once held, and will likely prove almost impossible to revive to any significant degree. And even in its heyday, Iraqi national solidarity remained precarious, as it was not easy to generate feelings of common identity around a country that had been largely created by Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, two British imperial agents widely despised in the region. The leaders of ISIS are well aware of this conundrum, and they benefit from it tremendously.
Fisher also errs in assuming that any regional governments in an ethnically divided of Iraq, be they fully independent or merely autonomous, would necessarily deny basic rights to members of minority faiths and linguistic groups. To see the falsity of this assertion, all one has to do is examine the actual situation in the territory under the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government. Although Iraqi Kurdistan faces a number of ethnic problems, it is still a refuge for minority groups that are deeply persecuted elsewhere in the region. In other parts of the world as well, many states founded on the national identity of a particular group afford a full array of rights and protections to their minority populations.
Josh Gelernter’s article, “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” takes the opposite perspective. It argues not merely for political autonomy for the Balochs of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but rather for their full independence. As he puts it:
Nonetheless, what’s right is right; the Balochs deserve self-determination. We should at least start by saying so. And at least one congressman has said so: In 2012, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution calling for the House to recognize that “the people of Baluchistan [sic], currently divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country” and that “they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status among the community of nations, living in peace and harmony, without external coercion.”
Elsewhere in the article, however, Gelernter indicates that his support for Baloch sovereignty is also based on U.S. strategic interests. As he puts it:
Like the Kurds, the Balochs are Muslims who, reportedly, have a strong pro-West and pro-democracy bent. According to the president of the Baloch Society of North America, the “Balochs are secular, pro-peace and democratic people. We believe that every nation, including the Jewish people, has the right to defend itself.”
But as Gelernter admits, open support for the independence of Balochistan would generate huge diplomatic headaches for the United States. Although he welcomes the prospect of “balkanizing Iran” in order to “distract Iran’s extra-territorial trouble-making,” he allows that “Pakistan is — at least nominally — our ally in the war on terror, and Balochistan accounts for more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s total territory.” Gelernter is also concerned about China’s possible response to such a U.S. foreign-policy initiative, especially in regard to the major port facilities that it has constructed in Gwadar. But his conclusion is nonetheless quite simple: “The United States should, as a rule, support the democratic aspirations of oppressed peoples.”
I find it astounding that the National Review, the leading voice of intellectual conservatism in the United States, would publish an article that calls for such a wholesale reorientation of U.S. foreign policy, openly challenging the entire post-WWII global geopolitical order. The consequences of U.S. support for the partition of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be nothing less than earthshaking. Although I admire Gelernter’s audacity and willingness to think independently, this particular proposal seems to be a non-starter.
Not surprisingly, most of the few comments that Gelernter’s article received are highly skeptical. The most informed remarks, those of “AxelHeyst,” are scathingly critical. As this anonymous commentator writes:
Writing as someone who knows a lot more about this issue than the author, I can attest that this piece is utter nonsense.
The Baloch have never once in their history been a united nation. They are a rag-bag of tribes, none of which feels any loyalty to the others. Their chieftains lead lives of extraordinary privilege and are heavily implicated in the opium trade from Afghanistan, through Iran and into Turkey and Europe. Those chiefs have no desire whatsoever to see economic development, because it would threaten their feudal rights and drug trade.
Pakistan does NOT treat Balochistan like a colonial possession. Just ask the Canadian and Chilean companies who tried to mine there…a provincial court tore up their concession. Pakistan’s supreme court said it couldn’t intervene.
Various foreign intelligence agencies have tried to stir up the Baloch against Iran and Pakistan, notably Israel’s Mossad and India’s R&AW. The CIA were particularly critical of Mossad’s effort, given that the CIA got the blame for the decapitation of a number of Iranian border guards who were actually murdered by a Mossad-backed group. (See the article ‘False Flag’ in Foreign Policy magazine, 2012).
I don’t know what the hell Rohrabacher’s doing with this issue, or whether he fancies himself a new Charlie Wilson, but persuading people to start killing each other for some trumped-up national identity is about as irresponsible as it gets. Vote him out.
My own position is roughly halfway between those of Gelernter and “AxelHeyst.” The Baloch have often been very poorly treated in both Iran and Pakistan, and many of their grievances are quite real. Equally important, denying their political aspirations merely because “never once in their history [have they] been a united nation” is simply nonsensical. By the same reasoning, one would have been forced to reject the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776. The majority of the word’s sovereign states, moreover, fall into the same category, never having been “united nations” before they gained sovereignty. But such arguments do not mean that advocating independence is the best way of addressing the plight of the Baloch. If a major foreign power such as the United States were to seriously push for the full sovereignty of Balochistan, gargantuan problems would almost certainly arise.
The issues addressed in this post are extraordinarily complex. As such, they defy simply political classification. Whether or not one supports a particular bid for national self-determination, moreover, often comes down to political expedience rather than principle. Writers on the left are more inclined to champion national liberation struggles that are based on leftist principles and that seek independence from non-leftist states than they are to favor similar struggles with different political coloration. By the same token, conservatives in the United States generally look more favorably on peoples seeking independence from anti-American governments than on those hoping to partition U.S. allies.
Can one take a principled or at least consistent stand on such matters? That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.