JACK WATERFORD. If you break it, you own it.

Oct 15, 2019

A president owns his nation’s history and its honour …  the luxury of being able to make history, but not of repudiating it.

Winston Churchill can finally rest comfortably in his grave after a 115-year reign as the worst political and military strategist and tactician in dealings with the Turkish empire. That’s a title he inherited from Pope Nicholas V who thought that letting Constantinople fall to Sultan Mehmed II in 1543 would make the Byzantine schismatics seek reunification with Rome..

Churchill’s replacement is, of course, Donald Trump. Much of the modern Turkish delight is of western creation; many  Australians have died as a result. We ourselves put it in our backyard.

This week Donald Trump betrayed the Kurds, in a way at least as awful previous treacheries by the British, French, and Americans. To add insult to injury, this representative of a nation which sat out five of the nine years of WWI and WWII  said that Kurds weren’t real allies because they had not helped America at the battle of Normandy during World War II. (Nor did any of the Trump family, needless to say.) I think he meant that they were not real white men, like himself .

Scott Morrison is publicly refraining from criticism, being “loyal”, and hoping for the best. But he should not think of Australia as a bystander. One way or another we are complicit in the latest developments, because we were involved in helping create the circumstances that have made it happen.

Trump, moreover, can excuse his betrayals of American allies he didn’t start the war/  But the point of being president – and of having sovereign power – is that one is America, not a person or a partisan. A president owns his nation’s history, its honour  and its reputation. He has the luxury of being able to  make history, but not of repudiating it.

Churchill had two very bad ideas about Turkey during World War I. He mostly gets blamed for his second brainstorm – Gallipoli – but his first was probably the more disastrous and unnecessary, and led to a greater overall loss of life. His actions  brought Turkey into the war within two months of its starting.

Turkey didn’t rush to war in August 1914.  It hadn’t made up its mind about who to go with until, at the first moment of the war, Churchill, as First Sea Lord, decided to seize two significant Turkish warships whose construction had just been completed in Britain. He thought Britain could probably put them to better use than Turkey. Perhaps: one of the warships was to participate in the battle of Jutland, even if it was the only capital ship engaged which didn’t fire its main guns. By contrast, the war with the Ottoman Empire was to end up involving more than 800,000 allied soldiers, and, counting both sides, involve half a million deaths.

Churchill’s better-known brainwave of WWI six months after Turkey decided to go with Germany. The war in Belgium and France was falling into stalemate. He conceived the idea that an attack on Turkish positions along the Gallipoli Peninsula could quickly capture Istanbul and push Turkey out of the war, permitting the resupply of Russia through the Black Sea and war in Europe’s soft-underbelly to relieve German pressure on the western front.

Australians, especially those who listen to Brendan Nelson, sometimes seem to think that Gallip9oli was all about Australians . There we were, locked in mortal combat with Johnny Turk, after which, all of Turkey resounded with praise for the bravery of the ANZACs. Then we all became friends again. In fact, Australian was only a bit player, and its participation made little difference to the outcome, which was a resounding defeat for the Allies.

Britain and its empire sent 350,00 troops, not counting us.   France sent 80,000 troops. About 50,000 Australian ANZACs fought, and 15,000 Kiwi Anzacs. The Brits lost 34,000 men killed, and 80,000 wounded. About 10,000 French soldiers died, with about 17,000 wounded. Australia had 8700 die in action, with another 19,400 wounded. Australian casualties were about 15 per cent of the total allied casualties.

It is pretty much possible to write a history of war on the Dardanelles without mentioning Australia or what all of individuals acts of bravery and gallantry achieved. If anything.

During the war,  Arabs were promised control of land they helped liberate. It didn’t happen. Those folk who made the promises themselves divided the spoils between them. They installed Hashemite kings but controlled them.  France took Lebanon and Syria, Britain took Iraq,  Palestine, Jordan and half of Sinai. Somewhere in the middle of its deliberately broken promises to the Arabs, the British had also promised a Jewish homeland within Palestine, if proper compensation were paid to any displaced existing inhabitants.

And among other inducements for local revolts it had promised a separate homeland to the Kurds, in the lands where they have lived for centuries. Then, as now, they lived in eastern Turkey, in adjoining northern Syria and Iraq and even into Iran. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres gave effect to the notion of an independent Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, Turkey itself was in turmoil. It had lost most of its possessions in the Balkans in the first Balkan war in 1912. The victors engaged in ethnic cleansing and pushed Turks back into Anatolia. During the war, a government of “Young Turks” began massive official ethnic cleaning, by the Turks themselves,  of the mostly Christian Armenian population near the Armenian border. Perhaps a. This led million Armenians, and not a few Kurds, were massacred, hundreds of thousands more were pushed into Syria and exile. At first the Armenian Genocide appears to have been religious in character; later it was more nationalistic. Turkey still denies a policy or practice of genocide, but it is difficult to call it anything else.

The “giving away” of Turkish parts of Kurdistan produced a revolt and coup inside Turkey. This led to the creation of the Turkish republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk set up a secular republic, explicitly looking westwards for its education and legal system. When Turkey’s boundaries were set by international treaties in 1923, the notion of a Kurdistan had disappeared, other than as a dream by Kurds now living in four nations.

Turkey has not since recognized any specific Kurdish rights. It regards those agitating for statehood or regional autonomy, in or out of Turkey, as terrorists. It has no intention of allowing the creation of a Kurdistan, intrinsically bound to be hostile to them, in or out of Turkey.

All the more so as Turkey’s politics have become more unstable, authoritarian and religiously-focused. Failed coups and counter-coups have led to mass arrests of dissidents, purges of army officers and officials. It has three million Syrian refugees within its border, and a deal not to forward them to Europe.  These are refugees it wants to push back into Syria, if not into the vengeful; hands of the regime in Damascus. And Turkey fears of the increasing power, political clout and military resources of a 60,000-person very professional and well-led Kurdish army created with the assistance of the US. These are the people who defeated ISIS, to which Turkey had given a lot more support than it admits.

This Kurdish army that was, until this week, under US protection. Now America is allowing Turkey to enter Syria to pursue what Turkey calls terrorists in this army. The Kurds may become like the mujaheddin of Afghanistan, originally armed by America when they were fighting Russian occupation, now at war with its former sponsor. If it is openly attacked, it is likely to be a lasting and bitter enemy. That’s what frank treachery, for higher reasons of state, generally brings.

Kurds  will not be appeased by Trump’s requests that Turkey not “go too far”. We do not know if Turkey, or the US, has considered whether the Kurds will be the pushover Turkey expects. Or, what to do, by way oftit for tat the Kurds “accidentally” let go 60,000 men and women of ISIS it now has under its control.

Churchill’s genius over matters in the “Near East” continued in  WWII. Churchill was a great wartime leader, but a compulsive and usually a disastrous meddler. His closest military adviser, General (later Field Marshal) Alan Brooke found it a full-time job trying to intercept and nullify his brainwaves.

Soon after  the fall of France in 1941, he decided that the French Fleet had to be sunk lest it fall into German hands. If it did, it might go into the Atlantic and attack convoys. Just before the surrender, France had explicitly promised Churchill, through its Navy commander, Admiral Darlan,  that the Fleet would stay under its control. It was  parked, well out of Germany’s  way at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria. The French insist, to this day, that had the Germans attempted to commandeer the fleet, they would have scuttled it.

Churchill decided he could not take the risk. He ordered a British fleet to stand off Mers-el-Kebir to shell the French navy at anchor. About 1300 French sailors were killed, for the loss of two Poms and five aircraft. Churchill had thought his desperate action would be a gesture of defiance at a very low time in the war, showing how gallant little Britain would fight on alone against Germany. Instead it enraged Vichy France, with rancor lasting to this day. Henceforth Vichy soldiers fought back against Britain wholeheartedly, rather than with token resistance followed by friendly surrenders.

Yet again, Australians died as a result.  Darlan now gave Germany permission to land supplies in Syria and Lebanon, implicitly threatening the Eighth Army fighting in Egypt and Libya with encirclement. An Australian division resting in Palestine was to conquer Syria and Lebanon,  with the help of  “Free French” and  Indian troops. This  cost Australia 460 men killed, with another 1300 wounded. (Australians “took” Damascus, for the second time that century; No other outsiders had done so since the crusades, or has since.

Fifty years later Australia was an enthusiastic supporter of a United Nations attack on  Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Again  in 2002 we joined in, sort of, when the US decided that it ought to conquer Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein and destroy his supposed weapons of mass destruction. Our wheat-for-arms deals had helped to Saddam re-arm, as well as to wage war on groups who had opposed him, such as the Kurds. Later, our air force became heavily involved in attacked Islamic State soldiers fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Our political leaders from Bob Hawke to John Howard, then Tony Abbott were circumspect in putting Australian soldiers in harm’s way. Our main purpose for being there was not to achieve any specific outcome, but to be seen, by the Americans, in solidarity with the adventure.

Yet  we were there. Governments denied this made us more vulnerable to domestic terrorism. But they were less voluble on why we were there, and what the point of it was. Nothing Australians, from generals to cooks, did made any difference. Like the Americans, we went in without a plan, or a milepost at which one could say “mission accomplished.” At least we were not where the action was.

Even without our prior history we got involved enough to be subject to the rule that “If you broke it, you own it”. As Iraq fell apart, as el Qaeda lay in wait, and, later, as a new terror group, Islamic State declared a caliphate, it was clear this was going to be a very messy egg.

Many  Americans, from Trump down, and many Australians (including me) wish we never went in. From Vietnam on, America had let itself get trapped in internecine wars where cunning had replaced capital, where conflict demanded  more and more resources. Not only armies but governments could get enmeshed and enmired.  Often In pursuit of aims no longer possible, in support of people who are only barely deserving, against enemies who do not play fair. Who have time, not watches.

In no time, the war is a political drag, the casualty list a personal reproach, the lack of progress blamed by one’s political enemies on irresolution, a lack of courage and an incapacity to perceive where the national interest les.

Getting out honorably is next to impossible. Nothing ends up neatly; there are few set piece battles and , and the modern enemy never raises its hands. Even getting out dishonorably is hard: it is  unseemly to be seen on the helicopter kicking the hands away of allied combatants one is now abandoning, as in Saigon in 1975.

Weak and indecisive leaders do not know when to cut their losses – the cost of hanging on being lower than the personal political humiliation of being seen to have been defeated.   Lyndon Johnson said, more than 50 years ago, that  he did not want the first president to lose a war. Not one of his successors has won one.

One thing is for certain. Trump’s action has not made America great again. He has, rather, shown the limits of American power,  the limits of its will, and that America can be discouraged and made to give up. Made to pay the ransom, or to surrender the rescued hostages back to the bully.

Trump has  reinforced doubts – not least in South East Asia — about whether the US any longer has the will, determination or guts ever to stay the course. Such nations are slower to commit or trust,  because they fear betrayal and abandonment. Such fears weaken even strong alliances, and reduce America’s soft power and USs capacity to harness goodwill or to ask a favour.

When one’s old friends don’t trust you and doubt your reliability, your supposedly moral cause – defence of human rights or democracy, for example – is weakened. The west, moreover, sees They fear we again live in a world of might-makes- right.  The vacuums are filled by other would-be leaders – including China and Russia.

Trump has always rated himself as a dealer – a charmer whose capacity to reach out to an apparent enemy, to persuade and get to brass tacks,  can cut through to change the game. That capacity – if it exists – has not worked with North Korea. Or China. Or Europe. Or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Or America’s extremist right.

With each he has claimed breakthroughs and fresh understanding. It looks, usually, as if he is being playing for a mug. Only his vanity blinds him to his lack of achievement.It doesn’t fool anyone else.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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