National Review

Kurdistan and Balochistan: Is National Self-Determination a Left/Right Issue?

I have been wondering for some time how the issue of self-determination for so-called stateless nations fits into the standard, one-dimensional political spectrum. Historically, those on the left have been more favorably disposed to “national liberation struggles” than those on the right, who have more often advocated stability and the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo. By the same token, most of the best-known groups of the late 20th century that sought the independence of their homelands staked out positions on the left, and often on the far left. Prominent examples here include the Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Catalan and Basque separatists in Spain, and Quebecois separatists in Canada. Even support for Scottish independence tilts left, and I suspect that most international advocates of a “Free Tibet” lean in the same direction.

Recently, however, several opinion pieces have made me wonder whether the poles might be shifting on this matter. Is the left becoming suspicious of the idea of self-determination for stateless ethnic groups, just as the right warms up to it? Two problematic and utterly opposed articles command my attention in this regard. From the left comes Max Fisher’s “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” published in Vox on August 5, 2015. From the right comes Josh Gelernter’s “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” published in The National Review on September 4, 2015. One should, of course, be wary of reading too much into such a limited selection of idiosyncratic writings. As such, the current post should be read as merely exploratory rather than as conclusive in any way.

Before examining these two articles, it is necessary to consider the political spectrum itself. I am intrigued by the uncertain position of the self-determination question in part because it unsettles the very idea of a one-dimensional continuum of political belief, a notion that remains omnipresent no matter how often and how effectively it is challenged. As has often been noted, the extreme left and the extreme right often bear more resemblance to each other than they do to either the moderate left or the moderate right respectively. Equally significant, there are no logical reasons why many of the various beliefs that constitute the current mainstream “left” and “right” viewpoints necessarily belong together. A number of specific positions that were once counted as firmly “left” are now more often deemed “right,” and vice versa. To be sure, the political beliefs of most people can readily be placed on such a spectrum, but there are millions who simply don’t fit—as well as entire political movements premised on thwarting the very notion of a right-left continuum (that of the libertarians being the most prominent example).

Max Fisher’s Vox article, “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” takes a rather extreme position against the self-determination of ethnic groups, or at least those that happen to be found in Iraq. Joe Biden’s “terrible plan” in question, proposed with Leslie Gelb in 2006, was designed to preserve rather than eliminate Iraq as a country. But Biden and Gelb argued that ethnic animosity had had reached such a level that it had become difficult if not impossible for Iraq to function as a unitary state. Instead, they argued, a federal system should be contemplated, one that would accord a significant degree of autonomy to Iraq’s three main group, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the Kurds. The model that they proposed was that of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a country whose highly decentralized, ethnically based system of government had brought effective peace to what had been a war-shattered region.



Fisher pours contempt on the idea of such a decentralized, federally constituted Iraq. He argues that it would “enshrine sectarianism,” Iraq’s actual font of discord, into law. As such, its regional governments would only “give … citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.” The solution, as Fisher sees it, is simply to eliminate sectarian impulses:

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

Division of Iraq MapAlthough the idea of overcoming ethnic divisions is laudable, making it happen is another matter altogether. Here, Fisher has virtually nothing to say beyond blaming the United States for Iraq’s turmoil and asking a number of rhetorical questions that he admits have “no real answers.” As a result, Fisher’s proposals are almost laughable naive. In actuality, Iraq is at present effectively divided into three regions, with the officially recognized “national” government controlling the south, the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government the northeast, and ISIS the northwest. As can be seen from the paired maps posted here, the current fit between ethnic groups and political control is close indeed. The idea of the intrinsic nationhood of Iraq as a whole has lost most of the power that it once held, and will likely prove almost impossible to revive to any significant degree. And even in its heyday, Iraqi national solidarity remained precarious, as it was not easy to generate feelings of common identity around a country that had been largely created by Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, two  British imperial agents widely despised in the region. The leaders of ISIS are well aware of this conundrum, and they benefit from it tremendously.

Fisher also errs in assuming that any regional governments in an ethnically divided of Iraq, be they fully independent or merely autonomous, would necessarily deny basic rights to members of minority faiths and linguistic groups. To see the falsity of this assertion, all one has to do is examine the actual situation in the territory under the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government. Although Iraqi Kurdistan faces a number of ethnic problems, it is still a refuge for minority groups that are deeply persecuted elsewhere in the region. In other parts of the world as well, many states founded on the national identity of a particular group afford a full array of rights and protections to their minority populations.

Josh Gelernter’s article, “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” takes the opposite perspective. It argues not merely for political autonomy for the Balochs of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but rather for their full independence. As he puts it:

Nonetheless, what’s right is right; the Balochs deserve self-determination. We should at least start by saying so. And at least one congressman has said so: In 2012, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution calling for the House to recognize that “the people of Baluchistan [sic], currently divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country” and that “they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status among the community of nations, living in peace and harmony, without external coercion.”

Elsewhere in the article, however, Gelernter indicates that his support for Baloch sovereignty is also based on U.S. strategic interests. As he puts it:

Like the Kurds, the Balochs are Muslims who, reportedly, have a strong pro-West and pro-democracy bent. According to the president of the Baloch Society of North America, the “Balochs are secular, pro-peace and democratic people. We believe that every nation, including the Jewish people, has the right to defend itself.”

Balochistan MapBut as Gelernter admits, open support for the independence of Balochistan would generate huge diplomatic headaches for the United States. Although he welcomes the prospect of “balkanizing Iran” in order to “distract Iran’s extra-territorial trouble-making,” he allows that “Pakistan is — at least nominally — our ally in the war on terror, and Balochistan accounts for more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s total territory.” Gelernter is also concerned about China’s possible response to such a U.S. foreign-policy initiative, especially in regard to the major port facilities that it has constructed in Gwadar. But his conclusion is nonetheless quite simple: “The United States should, as a rule, support the democratic aspirations of oppressed peoples.”


I find it astounding that the National Review, the leading voice of intellectual conservatism in the United States, would publish an article that calls for such a wholesale reorientation of U.S. foreign policy, openly challenging the entire post-WWII global geopolitical order. The consequences of U.S. support for the partition of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be nothing less than earthshaking. Although I admire Gelernter’s audacity and willingness to think independently, this particular proposal seems to be a non-starter.

Not surprisingly, most of the few comments that Gelernter’s article received are highly skeptical. The most informed remarks, those of “AxelHeyst,” are scathingly critical. As this anonymous commentator writes:

Writing as someone who knows a lot more about this issue than the author, I can attest that this piece is utter nonsense.

The Baloch have never once in their history been a united nation. They are a rag-bag of tribes, none of which feels any loyalty to the others. Their chieftains lead lives of extraordinary privilege and are heavily implicated in the opium trade from Afghanistan, through Iran and into Turkey and Europe. Those chiefs have no desire whatsoever to see economic development, because it would threaten their feudal rights and drug trade.

Pakistan does NOT treat Balochistan like a colonial possession. Just ask the Canadian and Chilean companies who tried to mine there…a provincial court tore up their concession. Pakistan’s supreme court said it couldn’t intervene.

Various foreign intelligence agencies have tried to stir up the Baloch against Iran and Pakistan, notably Israel’s Mossad and India’s R&AW. The CIA were particularly critical of Mossad’s effort, given that the CIA got the blame for the decapitation of a number of Iranian border guards who were actually murdered by a Mossad-backed group. (See the article ‘False Flag’ in Foreign Policy magazine, 2012).

I don’t know what the hell Rohrabacher’s doing with this issue, or whether he fancies himself a new Charlie Wilson, but persuading people to start killing each other for some trumped-up national identity is about as irresponsible as it gets. Vote him out.

My own position is roughly halfway between those of Gelernter and “AxelHeyst.” The Baloch have often been very poorly treated in both Iran and Pakistan, and many of their grievances are quite real. Equally important, denying their political aspirations merely because “never once in their history [have they] been a united nation” is simply nonsensical. By the same reasoning, one would have been forced to reject the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776. The majority of the word’s sovereign states, moreover, fall into the same category, never having been “united nations” before they gained sovereignty. But such arguments do not mean that advocating independence is the best way of addressing the plight of the Baloch. If a major foreign power such as the United States were to seriously push for the full sovereignty of Balochistan, gargantuan problems would almost certainly arise.

The issues addressed in this post are extraordinarily complex. As such, they defy simply political classification. Whether or not one supports a particular bid for national self-determination, moreover, often comes down to political expedience rather than principle. Writers on the left are more inclined to champion national liberation struggles that are based on leftist principles and that seek independence from non-leftist states than they are to favor similar struggles with different political coloration. By the same token, conservatives in the United States generally look more favorably on peoples seeking independence from anti-American governments than on those hoping to partition U.S. allies.

Can one take a principled or at least consistent stand on such matters? That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

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The Political Contradictions of Anti-Urban NIMBY Activism in California

This final entry on Northern California will conclude the series by elaborating on the previously stated thesis that the local drive to protect urban and inner suburban neighborhoods from development is self-contradictory. Although anti-development activists incline to the left, their land-use policies are actually conservative, undermining their own larger agenda. Earlier posts looked at environmental sustainability and class divergence, contending that NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) hostility to urbanization thwarts the transition to a lower-carbon economy and places extraordinary burdens on middle- and working-class people, especially young ones. This post will consider the effects of the movement on the broader political orientation of the United States. The argument, simply put, is that by obstructing development in urban cores of the Bay Area and other Democratic-voting metropolitan areas of the country, local preservationists push growth into more development-friendly parts of the country, which tend to be much more conservative. Such dynamics enhance the economic and political power of those places, and thus nudge the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

I must stress that such claims are intended to be politically neutral, in accordance with the non-ideological stance of GeoCurrents. I am not arguing, in other words, that enhancing the political power of right-leaning portions of the U.S. is bad, as this blog is concerned with empirical issues of “what is,” not with what ethical issues of “what ought to be.” Admittedly, several recent posts have violated this principle, openly advocating urban intensification. Neutrality is often difficult to maintain, and I let myself get carried away by personal concerns about climate change, economic stagnation, and the widening class divide in the U.S. The same posts do, however, rest on an empirical basis, outlining the contradictions between stated goals and the consequences of actions undertaken. It is a fact that most people in Palo Alto and similar communities want to reduce green-house gas emissions and lessen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”; it is also a fact—or so I hope to have demonstrated—that opposition to urban intensification in these same communities actually has the opposite effects. Such an argument should be assessable by readers of any political persuasion. One could, for example, regard global warming as a hoax, welcome suburban expansion along metropolitan outskirts, and celebrate the glowing class disparity in the U.S. and still accept the thesis.

By preventing development in urban and old-suburban areas of the San Francisco metropolitan area, local activists shunt it elsewhere. Previous posts emphasized the Bay Area’s own exurban fringe in the northern San Joaquin Valley, but growth is also pushed into other parts of the country. States that gain from this process, Texas most notably, tend to be much more conservative than California. Such dynamics are experienced across the country, enhancing population and economic growth in Republic-voting areas and discouraging it in Democratic-voting ones. Partly as a result, the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives is shifting toward the more conservative parts of the country. Other factors, of course, contribute to this process, but it is difficult to deny the paradoxical consequences of supposedly left-wing NIMBY activism.

A number of conservative writers in the U.S. have noted the same general process, delighting in the diverging fortunes of the country’s two most populous states, contrasting the economic health of Texas with California’s distress. A March 14 post in the National Review Online is typical of the genre. Here Chuck DeVore, former Republican member of the California State legislature, blames California’s fiscal crisis on its high tax rates, powerful unions, obstructing bureaucrats, environmental regulations, litigious legal system, and “subsidization of poverty.” As an example of the difficulty of doing business in California and the ease of conducting it in Texas, DeVore cites Apple’s decision to build a new $304 million campus in Austin rather than in the Bay Area (more recent reports, however, claim that the project may actually go to Arizona). California’s impending fiscal catastrophe, conservative writers like DeVore stress, will probably result in yet another round of tax increases, which will drive away more businesses and people, potentially sending the state into a downward spiral.

Such charges may have some merit. California’s tax rates are high and will probably increase, discouraging investors and wage earners alike. But overall, the Bay Area remains a very attractive place in which to live and to do business, as is reflected in its land values and rents, both commercial and residential. (The same situation holds in much of Southern California as well.) Silicon Valley is again booming; according to a recent report, “Office occupancy in the region rose by 2.7 million square feet last year, the most since 2000, and rents may advance 11 percent to an average $36 a square foot in 2012.” Many people want desperately to live in communities such as Palo Alto, otherwise they would not be willing to spend $800,000 for small condos in undistinguished buildings or $1,200,000 for modest, mass-constructed tract houses from the 1960s. The real drag on local business is not California’s somewhat excessive taxation rates or its slightly more powerful unions than those found elsewhere, but rather its outrageous land and housing costs and its exasperating obstacles to new urban developments. Apple currently wants to build a gargantuan 2.8 million square-feet corporate headquarters in Santa Clara County, which would dwarf its planned Texas project; gaining permission to do so will prove a challenge, to say the least. Apple’s proposed “space-ship” building can be criticized on both aesthetic and environmental grounds; encompassing 5.7 million square feet of landscaping, the behemoth would not be pedestrian-friendly. But the mere fact that that it is being pursued runs counter to the thesis that businesses and people are being driven out of California by the state’s left-wing policies.

Liberal and conservative commentators alike tend to by-pass NIMBY opposition to urban development when discussing California’s economic crisis. Right-wing writers prefer to focus on taxation, unionization, regulation, and the legal environment, as these issues allow them to score points in national-level debates. Left-wing writers are often reluctant to confront contradictions within their own political camp, and hence try to place all blame on their conservative opponents.

A March 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Seeking Growth Without Sprawl,” presents a perfect example of such liberal blinders on the urbanization issue. The article touts an “ambitious new regional plan” that would steer new developments towards existing cities and public transportation corridors, based on the new urban intensification paradigm. So far, so good. But when examining opposition to the plan, the article mentions only criticisms put forward by conservative activists. Some right-wingers have attacked the proposal for supposedly ignoring consumer desires, as “future workers and their families will want an environment of single family subdivisions.” That such an objection ignores market realities, supposedly the touchstone of contemporary conservatism, is not mentioned. The article goes on to highlight critics on the extreme right, those who view the entire urbanization scheme as part of a nefarious United Nations plot to extinguish American freedom and establish global governance.

Emphasizing such opposition is an easy course for the San Francisco Chronicle to take, as it fits well with the left-leaning proclivities of most of its readers. But it is also misleading. When actual plans for urbanization projects are put on the table, meaningful resistance comes not from the tiny cadre of U.N conspiracy theorists, but rather from superficially liberal activists who do not oppose urban intensification per se, but certainly do not want it impinging on their own communities. Pointing out such a contradiction could be editorially imprudent, potentially alienating an influential part of the newspaper’s readership. As a result, the real issues are left unmentioned.


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