Break-ups break hearts, but sometimes the thirst for freedom cannot be denied. When the desire to end a bad relationship involves the peoples of a nation, the process can become a bloody one. Americans don’t have far to look to understand that. A century and a half after Appomattox the wounds of a civil war have not yet fully healed.
As secessionist movements of the Kurds in Iraq and the Catalans in Spain gain momentum, American leaders walk a tightrope between principle and policy in settling on a response. None can foresee where the breaking will stop and the healing will begin.
Iraqi Kurds went to the polls last week and an overwhelming 93 percent of them voted to support secession from Iraq. Voters of Spain’s Catalonia region approved a similar independence referendum by a resounding 90 percent.
Despite a longstanding alliance with the Kurds, an ethnic population of 45 million scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, successive American administrations have chilled the idea of an independent Kurdistan. “The United States’ historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today’s non-binding referendum,” said a State Department spokesman, “but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer staked out a countervailing view, expressing support for Kurdish independence. “Monday’s historic vote in Iraqi Kurdistan should be recognized and respected by the world,” he said, “and the Kurdish people of northern Iraq have my utmost support.”
At a White House visit last week by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, President Trump offered a curious reassurance to Spain. “I can say, speaking only for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united.” But presidents of the United States do not have the luxury of speaking only for themselves. They speak for the nation, and have to be careful what they say.
Undeterred, the separatists went forward with their referendum. With police using muscle to drive crowds of voters away from polling places, the Spanish government vowed to do “everything within the law” to prevent Catalonia, which includes the vibrant city of Barcelona, from successfully seceding. Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia, says the autonomous region will declare its independence within days.
The yearning for a homeland is a fundamental human desire and one that shouldn’t be dismissed without due care. The dazzling history of the American continent would have been far different had France turned its back on George Washington and other Founders beseeching support for their break with England.
Genuine patriots are sometimes few, and recent U.S. attempts to choose winners of intranational conflicts have been fraught with failure. Believing a regional superpower would stabilize the Middle East, President Obama and his lieutenants reviled Iran’s Green Movement to unseat the ruling mullahs, while encouraging Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Now Iran is on the cusp of being a nuclear power, and the region is more volatile than ever.
John Adams counseled that America “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Nor does it venture as a talent scout hunting for the next democratic idol. Barring access to a far-seeing crystal ball, better to lead by example in upholding the ideals of liberty, and count on the determination of freedom-seekers to anoint the movements worthy of independence.
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