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January 18, 2008


Geez, I wish I could sputter like this...

Could it not have been a sort of deeply ironic, Pilate-like rhetorical question?

“What’s a Kurd anyway?”
-Bush lackey.

“What’s a Muslim anyway?”
-Hopefully not you.

Ignorance is inexcusable among the educated in 2008.


I find this so difficult to believe that, well, I don't believe it. If someone with the patience (and the stomach) can go through Podhoretz's writings about Iraq since (at least) 1991, and demonstrate that the word "Kurd" never appears in them (in particular, that Podhoretz never refers to Saddam's use of chemical weapons against them), I'll admit I'm wrong, but it seems awfully unlikely.

Yes, Bill, some of us have even met Muslims, and so far have remained unbeheaded, as shocking as that may be to you. But no doubt they're not true Muslims according to the standards of Imam Bill.

Ignorance is inexcusable among the educated in 2008.

Bill, you need some fresh material.

Not to reject your thesis that some neocons were/are ignorant (though I find the Podhoretz quote a bit hard to believe) but I personally know several people, who were always far to the left of me (as in socialists who mean business) and have been active in groups supporting the Kurds since the 80s, that turned out to be fierce defenders of the second Iraq war and the wider neocon worldview. They are of a different generation than the neocons but the dynamic that has brought about their change of heart seems to be eerily similar.

Jackmormon pre-pwns my "What is truth, anyway?"

i think there's a great black comedy that could be written about the level of iraq knowledge that senior admin officials (and their cheerleaders) had circa 2002-03. hell, it's still bad today, but i bet they just didn't have a clue.

for instance, i remember the kristol quote about "no history of ethnic conflict" or something like that. i'm reading Tripp's History of Iraq. I'm only up to the British Mandate of the 20s, but so far it's been about 100% ethnic conflict.

my hunch is that the plot stays the same when saddam al-tikrit enters from stage left

Ok, that's so outrageous that, like an earlier commentator, I have trouble believing that he wasn't taken out of context. And I normally loathe the guy.

Consider that Podhoretz basically knew what was going on (Kurds are a distinct group, long history of oppression, separatism, the US dicking them around, etc etc) and was just asking what makes Kurds a distinct group (language, culture, that sort of thing). As in, "I know that this group exists and is important, but what exactly makes a Kurd a Kurd?" That would still betray embarrassing ignorance for a so-called expert, but it wouldn't be as apocalyptically stupid as you're making it out to be.

Yeah... I happen to think NPod is crazy as a loon, but I have a hard time believing this.

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has been the big success story of the Iraq war, you'd think the neo-cons (who started the whole thing) would pay attention, sheesh!

Success only in comparison to the rest of Iraq, there is an awful lot horribly wrong with the Kurdish leadership and Kurdish society and that's always been the case - it's just that they're really awesome at PR.

Yeah, my impression was that Podhoretz was essentially saying that there was no real Kurdish identity, that it was an artificial construct. It would be more akin to a British official advocating retaking 'the colonies' in 1790 asking "What is an American, anyways?" He doesn't see the thread binding them together.

Of course, considering the history of the country's creation, a more relevant and important question Podhoretz could have asked in that vein would be, "What is an Iraqi, anyways?"

So, as homais says, it demonstrates a lack of understanding or interest in detail, but it probably isn't QUITE as bad as it sounds on the surface. More a demonstration of how the neocons only looked long enough to see what suited their purposes, then had no interest in digging deeper.

Here''s a thought:

[...] All of this is very confusing, of course. Many Americans (including, until not so long ago, President Bush) do not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone between a Sindhi and a Punjabi. Just try to imagine, say, Secretary of State Podhoretz briefing President Giuliani on his first meeting with the leaders of the Baluchi­stan Liberation Army, and it becomes obvious that we may be entering a new and hazardous era.
Alternatively, there's Mike "what's a 'National Intelligence Estimate'?"* Huckabee, or, if you prefer, Mitt "we ought to double Guantanamo" Romney.

(*Huckabee phrase a paraphrase, not an actual quote.)

Glad to see Bill made his obligatory presence known on a post dealing with Muslims.

I tend to agree that the question posed by NPod was probably more of the "Tell me more about what makes a Kurd a Kurd variety."

He has made enough statements that fall into the realm of lunacy that we don't have to look for more.

Of course, he has tended to propound the view that all Muslims are to be mistrusted and are out to get us that he may actually have believed that Kurds were not Muslim.

After 9/11, and during the buildup to the Iraq war, I had a few moments of doubt in my opposition to the course being adopted by the administration. After all, these were serious people, with access to detailed intelligence reports, and vast experience in foriegn policy. I, on the other hand, was just some guy in Cedar Springs, Michigan, with a computer in his back bedroom, and no particular expertise in foriegn policy.

Nope, I was wrong to doubt myself--I, and most of the people commenting on this board (Bill, above, is an apparent exception) really do understand the world better than did the people making foriegn policy in the Bush administraton. This was clear to any careful observer by about late 2002 . . .

Just for the record, and because I'm terribly behind on supplying my quota of pedantic terminology few care about, a blog is neither a bulletin board system (BBS, or "board"), nor an e-mail list ("list").

It's a blog.

[...] Nope, I was wrong to doubt myself--I, and most of the people commenting on this board (Bill, above, is an apparent exception) really do understand the world better than did the people making foriegn policy in the Bush administraton. This was clear to any careful observer by about late 2002 . . .
Perhaps fewer, more extraordinary, observers, considering ObWididn't exist until November, 2003.

"what Podhoretz said is like one the accountants who certified Enron's asking 'what's a balance sheet' or someone who trumpeted the safety of the Titanic asking 'what's a hull'."

I believe Enron's accountants came very close to phrasing their question that way --- it was a slight variation, as they winked and pocketed the money: "What balance sheet?"

They were then invited along with Enron executives to meet with Dick Cheney behind closed doors to fashion an energy policy.

In the case of the Titanic, much was made of the hull, but similar questions were posed, one from the bridge, "What's an iceberg?" and a second one by a shipping executive high up in the ranks, wearing a babushka and a string of pearls --- "What's a lifeboat?" ...

... as he climbed into what he claimed was a day skiff and was lowered over the side of the Titanic.

After rescue, with the other women and children, he was immediately whisked off to Washington to a White House ceremony where he was named Director of OSHA, FEMA, and the Coast Guard in the Bush Administration.

As to Podhoretz's inquiry about the Kurds, his question was part of a hat trick, the third leg on the stool of George Bush's foreign policy, the other two being "What's a Shiite?" and "What's a Sunni?"

Thus, in these three examples has the private sector proved its exemplary competence and been promoted to ruin the government, too.

Next question: "What's a sub-prime mortgage and what's it doing in my money market fund?"

Just the other day, I spotted Stalin sipping a latte and directing the starvation and slaughter of most of the population of the Ukraine from his laptop at a local Starbucks.

I would have protested, but I was too busy plotting how to bring the full weight of fascim down on Jonah Goldberg's head by fashioning a universal health care system so that his lobotimy could be reversed at taxpayer expense.

Now, my wife is glaring at me for talking via email to all of my best friends and ignoring the family's effort to pack for the cross country ski weekend.

Hilzoy, I have to side with homais and Daniel Merritt here. I think it is more likely that Podhoretz meant it as a kind of rhetorical question to cast doubt on Kurdish identity, rather than confessing that he had no idea what the hell Kurds were to begin with.

First of all, Podhoretz (along with most people from whom it is more important to maintain a reputation than to be honest) is probably smart enough not to admit his ignorance in such a public way. The guy pretends to know all sorts of things he really does not. I think he would probably have pretended to know about the Kurds if he really had never heard of them.

Second, neocon commentators of this sort tend to make the same kinds of arguments as one another. And one of the arguments they like to trot out against claims to statehood that they don't want to respect is that the group being described isn't real. In the case of the Palestinians, they will say that they are just really Jordanians, who concocted an identity in order to make claims on Israeli land. I guess in this case the motivation is to deny that there's any serious ethnic difference in Iraq.

I'm not sure what the Goldberg talk was about, but we might be able to guess that it had something to do with ethnic conflict within Iraq. If Goldberg was expressing skepticism that Iraq could be yoked into one happy federal family, then there is a good chance that Podhoretz would have shot back with this argument

I want to say that this is one of the most racist arguments you hear from neocon-types. I hear it all the time, but never in print, which is also something I wonder about. Why are there arguments that one hears informally, but never formally? It takes real nerve to look at a group of people and say to them that their ethnicity just isn't real.

I mean, there are all kinds of reasons to hold the opinion that a certain ethnic group ought not have its own state right now. I can't imagine any more deeply offensive reason than believing that they're just not actually a group to begin with.

But why would anyone believe this? I know why people believe it about the Palestinians. They just want to make their claims go away. And they will believe anything, no matter how silly, that allows them to justify that. But to deny that there is an authentic Kurdish identity in this case I think is something different. Podhoretz just wanted his bizarre utopian vision of the Middle East to be right. And he is willing to bend facts in the most odious and offensive ways imaginable in order to keep believing it.

considering ObWididn't exist until November, 2003

Quite true, Gary--but most of the people commenting on this board existed before that date, even if they weren't commenting here yet.

There may, however, be a few 5 year olds who comment here regularly . . .

As I said in the post: I tend to trust Goldberg, and also to think NPod capable of any amount of idiocy. That said: several of you have suggested that he meant something like this (from Daniel Merritt):

"my impression was that Podhoretz was essentially saying that there was no real Kurdish identity, that it was an artificial construct."

The thing is, that's also a pretty ignorant thing to say, though of course less so that "What's a Kurd?" It would be one thing to ask: what exactly is a Jordanian? Jordan really was an artificial construct, and whatever Jordanian identity might now exist is pretty recent.

Kurds are completely different in this respect. They have identified as Kurds for centuries. They speak their own language, and it's not just e.g. a spinoff of Arabic, or a dialect; it's Indo-European, and thus completely, totally different from what Iraqi Arabs speak. (Closer to Farsi, but still quite different.)

I mean, asking that question in order to make some point about how the distinction between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds is all artificial would be like, oh, asking the same question about the French and the Germans in 1920.

Kurds are completely different in this respect. They have identified as Kurds for centuries.

Millennia, even.

hilzoy, yeah I meant to defend Podhoretz of ignorance only to accuse him of racism.

What is chilling to me about it is that you don't need to denigrate anybody in order to think:

X group ought not have a state right now, given the practical consequences.

So there is just no reason whatsoever to go around trashing people's ethnic identity. But you do need it to think something like:

X group ought not have a state, and that is the way things ideally should be.

It would be bad to believe something racist just salvage one's policy prescriptions. But it is much much worse to believe this sort of thing just to salvage your utopianism.

And I really think that is what is going on here, psychologically. There's simply no other explanation for why this brand of neocon should be preoccupied with the question of who is an authentic ethnicity and who is not.

I will now hereby attempt close the unclosed italics from Mike Schilling's post:

I hope that worked.

You have to say "pretty please."

In my opinion, I don't think he was viewing Kurds as being an artificial construct, but may have actually been more interested on just what the Kurdish identity is. What makes a Kurd a Kurd. Of course, he probably thinks that Kurds are a separate sect of Islam, and in that way like Sunni or Shiite, which would again display hsi ignorance about things he is viewed to be an expert on.

A small piece of historical trivia, that may only interest me: Saladin was of Kurdish descent, and born in Tikrit, Iraq, now more famous for rather less heroic persons.

And the Kurds were mentioned in the Anabasis by Xenophon (Kardouchoi). They seem to have been fiercely indpendent even then (and the Turks had not yet arrived).

Like the bloody Basques, then, against whom Charlemagne probably fought.

"And the Kurds were mentioned in the Anabasis by Xenophon (Kardouchoi)."

Wow. Are those the same peoples? Guess I have to go reread _The Persian Expedition_.

"Thalassa! Thalassa!"

At least my school edition of the Anabasis titled the chapter as "Through wild Kurdistan" (also the title of a Karl May novel, leading to many laughs among us). Our Classic Greek teacher demanded that we not translate the name as 'Kurds' though (the same as the Latin teacher not allowing to translate 'Helvetii' as 'the Swiss people'). Whether they were the actual ancestors I cannot say but at least the name was already there (counterexample: Prussia was named after a tribe that was completely exterminated, so the Prussians are not descendants of the Pruzzi).

Helmut7s reference had me poking around the net for more info and this pdf came up.

"What's an American, anyway?"

Sorry, this is somewhat OT for this thread, but it's the most recent post about Iraq:

Iraq Veterans To Testify at Their Own 'Winter Soldier':

Now, with another intractable conflict proving to be another defining moment in American history, some veterans of the Iraq war intend to take up the Winter Soldier banner. On March 13, Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization inspired by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, will convene at the National Labor College just outside of Washington to say, in so many words, that it’s all happening again.

“What’s happening now is no different than over the past five years,” said Geoff Millard, 27, the president of the group’s Washington chapter. “It’s the result of systematic problems in the way we fight an occupation. It’s not that we’re going to outline these huge atrocities. It’s how the systematic nature of occupation is oppression.”

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