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Realism and the Kurds

Bernard-Henri Lévy presents his extraordinary documentary Peshmerga at the United Nations, but civilization isn’t listening

Paul Berman
November 30, 2017
(Photo: Armin Rosen)Peshmerga
(Photo: Armin Rosen)(Photo: Armin Rosen)Peshmerga
(Photo: Armin Rosen)Peshmerga
(Photo: Armin Rosen)(Photo: Armin Rosen)Peshmerga

Why do the Kurds and their struggles arouse so little interest or sympathy or solidarity around the world? It is because of the doctrine of political “realism,” of which the greatest theoretician is Henry Kissinger—and, to be sure, Kissinger, as practitioner of his own theory, was the founder of America’s tradition of betraying the Kurds. The Kurds in Iraq in the early 1970s staged a rebellion against the Baathist dictatorship in Baghdad, and they enjoyed some American support. But, in 1975, Kissinger, as secretary of state, deemed the rebellion to be no longer in the American interest, and America’s support disappeared. With what consequences? The Kurds suffered terribly. Baathism flourished in Iraq. And, in time, the United States ended up at war with the Baathists, anyway.

Realism, the doctrine, affirms that, in matters of international affairs, the strong count, and the weak do not. That is because realism entertains a utopia, which is that of stability. And stability can be achieved only by a concert of the big and the powerful. It cannot be achieved by the small and the weak. Therefore realism is hostile to rebellions for freedom, hostile to small nations, hostile to invocations of morality or principle—hostile with a good conscience, on the grounds that, in the long run, the stability of the strong is better for everyone than the rebellions of the weak. Realism is, in short, an anti-Kurdish doctrine.

What good are the Kurds, anyway? From a realist standpoint, I mean. They are good for short-term interests, and not for long-term interests. Kissinger used them in the 1970s, and then tossed them away. The Reagan Administration in the next decade was content to see them gassed by Saddam Hussein. And in our own time? We needed the Kurds to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and they did fight. They are the heroes of the anti-Islamic State war. They ought to be parading in triumph along the boulevards of Manhattan and Paris. They are, in what appears to be their great majority, visibly the most progressive population in the Middle East, outside of Israel—self-reliant, tolerantly and beautifully Muslim, accepting of Yazidis and Christians and even of Jews, relatively open to women’s rights, reliably allergic to the mad totalitarianisms and apocalyptic fantasies of the modern age. But now that, for the moment, the insane Caliphate has been mostly defeated, our short-term interests have come to an end. And no one wants to hear about the Kurds.

Bernard-Henri Lévy has been telling us about the Kurds. A few months ago in Tablet, I commented on one of his journalistic documentaries of the Kurdish struggle in Iraq, The Battle of Mosul, and just now I have seen his other such documentary, Peshmerga, which might be regarded as Part One of the same film. The two films together are a feat of military journalism, stirring, appalling, and revealing. They are immense—Peshmerga more beautifully filmed, The Battle of Mosul more intense, both of them face-to-face with military courage and brotherhood and death. If these films were a poem, they would be composed in heroic verse. There is, in truth, something Homeric in the films. There are many extraordinary and dreadful aspects. I am writing in the minutes after having seen Peshmerga, and I cannot say that I have rebounded from having watched the prematurely white-haired Kurdish general, who, we learn, was shot and killed directly after the camera turned away from him—the general who seemed so high-spirited as he led his troops in battle, so animated, so confident, whose brother weeps to the camera, the general whose face we see once again as a photograph on a poster, presented as a martyr of the Kurdish cause.

But ultimately the most striking aspect of these two films is the articulation of political values by the Kurds themselves, some of them civilians, the rest of them soldiers. Words tumble from their lips that could never tumble from the lips of the man currently occupying the White House in Washington, D.C. These people are fighting for civilization, and know they are doing so, and say they are doing so.

Civilization, though, is not a category within the realist imagination. Realism is a matter of power, and civilization is a matter of principles. A realist analysis can explain many things, but it cannot explain why the Kurds have persistently fought, over the generations. It cannot see that a persistent rebellion in the name of civilization might amount to power, if only we would give it a chance. A realist analysis cannot see that our own power has to rest on something more than our own power, if it is to remain a power. It cannot see, therefore, what is obvious in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s magnificent films, which is that, in a world of vicious political movements and dangers on every side, the Kurds are our friends and allies, and perhaps they are our conscience. They gaze at the camera. We gaze back. They speak to us. We have nothing to say back to them.

The betrayal of the Kurds—will this be the black mark on our era, similar to the black mark of betrayal that fell across the foreheads of generations past, in the face of other persecutions and struggles for liberty? Twice now I have exited a hall where BHL’s Kurdish films have played, each time with my heart pounding and my head bowed in shame.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.