The Tragic Arrogance of Nation Building


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Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution Opinion The Tragic Arrogance of Nation Building

The Emory Wheel - By Stanton Abramson -  February 22, 2008

The last remnants of the former state of Yugoslavia were finally swept away on Sunday when Kosovo proclaimed its independence from Serbia. 

The disaster of a Serbian-dominated Balkan regime met its demise nearly 90 years after the signing of the fateful Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The European consolidation of the mountainous Balkans, where deep ethnic and religious tensions triggered World War I, into one state did not permit the self-determination espoused by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Rather, the South Slavic peoples found themselves placed under a single government led by notorious authoritarians such as Josip Tito and Slobodan Milosevic. Their dictatorial rule kept the Yugoslavian experiment intact for longer than it should have been, but the break-up of the country was inevitable from the start.

But it was the diverging destinies of the nation’s peoples that eventually sealed the country’s fate. Referring to the bloodshed common in the region, Winston Churchill once proclaimed, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

And so Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo declared their independence. Only the core state of Serbia, ruled from Belgrade, remains today. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Feb. 14: “There [was] no other way. Serbia lost a nationalist gamble on Kosovo a long time ago; the differences stemming from it are unbridgeable... Serbs will kick and scream, but Kosovo is just the last piece of a dead state to go its inevitable way.”

Now, as Kosovo’s 2 million citizens celebrate their independence in the new capital of Pristina, attention should shift to the other failed states drawn without regard for ethnic or religious cleavages. These states capture newspaper headlines daily: Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan and a number of sub-Saharan African states.

The ethnic and religious warfare consuming Sudan, for example, illustrates the lunacy of placing hostile populations within the same political boundaries. In an investigative piece in the January/February edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Jeffrey Goldberg calls Sudan “one of the most disastrous countries created by Europe.” 

With Yugoslavia’s blundered creation serving as a model, the current U.S. policy in Iraq appears absurd. Like Yugoslavia, Iraq lacks a national political history and consists of populations hostile to one another.

Demographically, Iraq’s Shiite Muslims reside in the south, its Sunni Muslims in the center and its Kurds in the north. Just like with Tito and Milosevic in Yugoslavia, it was the personal might of Saddam Hussein that kept his patchwork country together.

The three groups of Iraqis lack the resolve to work together within the framework of a unified state. Like Croatians, Slovenians, Serbs and Bosnians in Europe, they aspire to their own political destiny in the form of a sovereign state.

In particular, the Kurds already consider themselves an independent entity. Goldberg writes: “In the two main cities of the Kurdish region, the Iraqi flag is banned from flying; Arabic is scarcely heard on the streets... and Baghdad is referred to as a foreign capital.” 

Echoing Cohen’s judgment of Yugoslavia, Goldberg predicts that “independence for Iraq’s Kurds seems, if not immediate, then in due course, inevitable.”

If Iraq’s break up is unavoidable, why is the U.S. continuing to hope that a peaceful democracy can and will emerge from the banks of the Euphrates? This policy lacks an understanding of both history and reality.

The surge, begun in January 2007, deserves credit for drastically improving the security situation in Iraq. But are the benefits of the surge sustainable?

As longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll pointed out on Jan. 29, “wherever we put troops, insurgents will just leave the area. When we pull the troops out, the insurgents will return. So the only way to ‘win’ is to stay there forever.” Indeed, Senator John McCain, the Republican frontrunner for the 2008 presidential election, envisions U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years.

But like Yugoslavia, the deep, emotional yearning for self-determination does not yield. The desire for independence only grows as years pass. Neither dictators nor the federation-style democracy planned for Iraq can extinguish the flames of desire for statehood and self-determination.

Bringing Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations together is analogous to keeping Yugoslavia intact. The act of recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia while denying Kurdish self-determination is an American act of hypocrisy.

Worse yet, it places the United States on the wrong side of history.

Stanton Abramson is a College sophomore from Raleigh, N.C.

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