Diplomacy, it has been famously written, is the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the journey. The regional conference on Iraq in Istanbul this weekend is an example of how the Bush administration's predilection for replacing that art with a bludgeon can come back to haunt.
The meeting was supposed to be another step along the way in the development of Iraq's economy and place in the region. Instead, it will be dominated by the struggle between the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) and Turkey.
Keeping that simmering witches' brew from boiling out of its pot will be a major part of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's job, made all the harder by the fact that among the players who could be useful is the one participant Washington consistently tries to keep out of the mix, Iran.
The Iranians have vested interest in helping out. They have a restive Kurdish population of their own which could be used by their enemies to create problems. Tehran's role, and usefulness, was made clear this week when the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. A statement from his office said Maliki "asked the Islamic Republic to present their full support to Iraq during the Istanbul meeting and also to participate in solving the border crisis between Turkey and the P.K.K."
That's hardly the kind of talk Washington wants to hear about a nation under U.S. sanctions whose leadership it accuses of being a terrorist state trying to build a nuclear bomb and of knowingly allowing lethal weapons and roadside bomb equipment used against U.S. troops to be smuggled in from its soil, along with experts who can and perhaps do teach insurgents how to use them.
But Washington isolates Iran from the Kurdish problem at its peril. What so far has been kept to serious saber-rattling and some low-intensity violence along the Iraq-Turkey border will present a Hobson's choice of more than vexing proportion if it escalates.
Turkey is both a NATO ally and a critical supply route for the war in Iraq, so coming to the aid of Kurds under attack is pretty much out of the question. At the same time, the U.S. is bound by its words and deeds to help Iraq maintain and guard what passes for its sovereignty.
The Kurdish areas remain the most stable and economically active in Iraq. Allowing violence that would turn back the clock in the north would adversely affect the rest of the country. Indeed at a news conference on Wednesday, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that if Turkey were to invade Iraq, "it will have consequences for the entire region."
And then there is the moral issue. Having deserted the Kurds to Saddam's un-tender mercies after the first Gulf War (to say nothing of several previous betrayals) the U.S. was instrumental in setting up and maintaining the so-called "safe haven" that allowed Iraqi Kurds to develop establish and develop the vibrant, semi-autonomous area they now enjoy.
The Kurds expect the U.S. to keep the bargain. Small Turkish operations inside Iraq to fight the PKK, Kurdish MP Mahmoud Othman said in an interview with CBS News, would not be a problem.
"But," he added, "coming into the Kurdish towns and villages, making an incursion, that would be different, because America is responsible for this region."
Kurdish leaders routinely explain their lack of action against the PKK as being part of a deep desire, born if nothing else out of bitter experience, not to indulge in Kurd-on-Kurd fighting. At the same time, they warn that any Turkish invasion of their territory will be resisted.
That may be mere rhetoric, but the Turks must be wary of the fact that the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces are well-trained and organized, know the mountainous region along the border intimately, are fierce fighters and would have no qualms about killing Turkish troops. When Iraqi Kurds fled over the mountains to Turkey in their hundreds of thousand to escape Saddam's revenge at the end of the first Gulf War, the Turks kept them penned on the mountainsides in appalling conditions and imposed brutal restrictions on the flow of aid. Now they are imposing restrictions on cross-border trade which hurt the Kurd's economy.
The U.S. is , presumably including satellite images of their movement and routes, and pressuring the Kurdish authorities to cut those routes and reign in the PKK so the Turks can back off and still save face with an electorate that is baying for action to salve national honor. Joining the Turks in criticizing the Kurdish leadership in Iraq, however, puts Washington at odds with its closest ally, Britain.
At a joint news conference with Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader of northern Iraq, the British Defense Secretary Des Browne said that during his visit to the Kurdish region he had seen "a serious commitment to implement a range of measures which will make a difference." That was a direct contradiction of the State Department senior adviser on Iraq David Satterfield, who only a few days earlier had said that the United States was "not pleased with the lack of action" shown by Kurdish leaders.
None of that will make it any easier for Rice to make Washington's case at the conference this weekend.
Winston Churchill once said that American people and their leaders "invariably do the right thing, after they have examined every other alternative." In this part of the world, the present American leadership seems to be doing its best to earn that left-handed compliment.