Many Arab states and Turkey are already cheering President Obama’s decision to endorse Palestinian territorial demands regardless of past American commitments and the direction of past negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They should beware the precedent, because as every Arab leader and Turkey knows—but few care to acknowledge—is that the Middle East is full of secession struggles.
First and foremost is the Kurdish struggle for independence from Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party—better known by their Kurdish acronym the PKK—has waged a terrorist struggle since 1984 which has claimed far more lives in that time than Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians. If President Obama is willing to push negotiations aside, declare his support for regional peoples’ self-determination, and endorse the borders of a future Palestinian state including that state’s tendentious claim to Jerusalem, will some future present recognize Kurdistan’s right to an independent state in Anatolia with Diyarbakir as its capital?
In one of my favorite episodes of Family Guy, the main character Peter Griffin takes advantage of a zoning irregularity to declare his home and backyard an independent country and hence is born the Republic of Petoria. Whenever a country is named after a person, you pretty much know it’s an artificial country. So, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia, a country named after the Saud family after it conquered several other countries by force to unite a portion of the Arabian Peninsula by the sword. While diplomats and academics often talk about the struggle for identity and power between the Saudi ruling family and the religious clergy, the more interesting struggle for identity involves the conquered regions.
Take Hijaz, for example: As Mai Yamani, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies has pointed out, the Hijaz still maintains its own national and religious identity despite the Saudi and Wahabi efforts to crush it. Could some future president – one less beholden to Saudi Arabia than our recent presidents have been – recognize Hijaz’s national aspirations with Jeddah as its capital?
Let’s move south: Missed in the headlines first of the Houthi rebellion, then of Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen, and finally of the freedom protests in the country at the base of the Arabian peninsula is the fact the separatist sentiment has not since the civil war of 1994 run so high in South Yemen. Now let’s go to North Africa: In the Kabyle region of Algeria, many Berbers (who outnumber Palestinians) are increasingly asserting their national identity. While an independent Palestine at this point in time would likely be a terrorist state, the Kabyles embrace secularism, and so support for their national aspirations could actually be in American interests. Perhaps some future White House will recognize their homeland? With up to 40 percent of the Algerian capital Algiers being Berber, perhaps Obama or his successor can divide that capital by fiat?
For many years, Arab leaders and Turkey have accused the United States of acting inconsistently. Indeed, we have. Moral equivalence is a poor foundation for foreign policy. Far more important than equal treatment of all countries is consistent support for our allies—Israel, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Poland, Georgia, Australia, South Korea, Colombia, among many others—against terrorist or rogue threats they may face. Should Obama wish instead to apply consistency to self-determination struggles, he may not only legitimize those movements which have embraced terrorism as a tool, but he will also open a Pandora’s box which many of his cheerleaders among Arab leaders and their fellow-travelers in Turkey will come to regret.