Does U.S. Policy Undermine American Values?

Kurdish YPG Militias Fighting in Syria

Kurdish YPG Militias Fighting in Syria

By Jason Mast

Photograph of Kurdish People’s Protection Units courtesy of Kurdish Info

The US famously entered World War One to “make the world safe for democracy.” In the ensuing century we’ve fought dozens of wars – to defeat the Communist menace, to defend Kuwait’s sovereignty, to plant the seeds of a democracy in the Middle East and take weapons of mass destruction from a dictator. Even today America still frames its wars within a moral context. The U.S. must fight to ensure that its valuable ideals can blossom throughout the world. The current administration supports rebels fighting the Islamic State and conducts airstrikes across the Syria and Iraq. Watching the beheading of journalists and reading reports of ethnic cleansing in areas controlled by the Islamic State, it’s easy to see why.

“This is American leadership at its best,” President Obama said in a speech last September.  “We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.” Later he spoke of US troops who saved civilians from massacres in the Afghan mountains, and the outpouring of thanks they received.

That’s great, actually. The US is an unmatched global power and they have the obligation to use that power as an instrument of good in the world. War can serve both strategic and humanitarian purposes. Yet on occasion America’s Middle East policy has fallen short of these lofty ideals. Unless actions actually correspond to such idealistic goals, the moral vision becomes nothing more than propaganda

At times, America’s Middle East partners have contradicted the nation’s values. In the absence of American ground troops, the United States primary offensive has come in the form of strategic support for Kurdish Pesh Merga militias fighting in Iraq and Syria. The world’s largest ethnic minority without a state, the Kurds are an easy group to support from a moral lens. And indeed, American aid in the wake of the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars have helped the Kurds carve out a semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq, the closest thing to a democratic, economically stable pro-west regime in the Middle East outside of Israel.

But Iraqi Kurds are not the same as Syrian Kurds. Syria’s Kurds, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), harbor the same if not greater territorial ambitions but without the democratic scruples. They have, however, been the United States’ most effective ally in fighting ISIS in Syria. Since fighting began, the YPG has seized over 11,000 miles, including the oil-rich cities of Kobani and Tal Aybayyad. US airstrikes, facilitated by Tablet-wielding Kurdish commanders have been instrumental.

That territory, though, is part of what the Kurds hope will form a future Kurdish state – a Kurdish state with a largely Kurdish population. And in aiding the Kurds, the US has swapped one ethnic cleansing for another, according to a new report from Amnesty International.

After ‘liberating’ regions of Syria from ISIS control, the Kurds have razed Arab villages and forced civilian displacement, the Amnesty International report says. And the YPG has used the threat of US airstrikes to support their abuses.

“They threatened us with U.S. coalition strikes, saying that if we did not leave they would tell the U.S. we were [Islamic State],”  Hassan, a 35 year old farmer in an area taken over by Kurds, told Amnesty.

This should come as little surprise. Western powers have long been weary of the YPG due to its ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the most active Kurdish movement in Turkey. The State Department formally classifies the PKK as a terrorist group.

The Kurdish alliance does not represent the only example of the U.S. supporting questionable Middle East partners. The Obama Administration has repeatedly condemned the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on their own civilians – as they should. But they’ve remained quiet as their ally Saudi Arabia uses American weapons to shell population centers in Yemen. They’ve gone so far as to block United Nation proposals to investigate human rights abuses and war crimes in the conflict-ridden country.

The controversial drone program stands as another example of a U.S. policy with damaging human-rights repercussions. On October 14th, the Intercept published a cache of secret documents that revealed the extent civilian devastation from the longstanding but long secretive US drone program. That drones sometimes killed civilians was long known. The question was always how many. According to these documents, over one five month span, 90 percent of those killed were not intended targets. Other research from a US Military advisor found strikes, which the US prefers because they don’t risk US lives, are ten times more likely to kill civilians.

Wars can be fought for moral reasons. In fact, except for defensive wars, they probably should only be fought for that purpose. US support in Bosnia in the Kosovo War, for instance, helped stem a potential genocide. Certainly the U.S. has best intentions with regards to its Middle East policy. With a shortage of reliable Middle East partners, the U.S. can hardly shun everyone with a spotty resume. Perhaps, as Americans, we hold ourselves to a higher standard than other nations. But when the nation’s policies kill more than they save, when they sacrifice civilian lives for strategic efforts, framing military operations in a moral lens is no less a lie than claiming Iraq had WMDs.

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