As a retired four-star US Army General and former supreme commander of Nato, Wesley Clark knows more than most about the use of military force.
His 33-year army career included serving in Vietnam, commanding Nato’s combat action in Kosovo (the scene of recent elections), and directing worldwide US military strategic planning.
In the FT recently, he argued strongly against a Turkish invasion of Iraq in an attempt to defeat the PKK Kurdish guerrillas: “Despite popular longing for a quick military solution, [it] would bring only stalemate, frustration and – more ominously – destabilise the region, undermine US-Turkish relations for decades, and jeopardise the stability and prosperity of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.”
He adds: “War is never simple. The friction and fog of war always conspire to make the actual combat far more complex, time consuming and bloodier than the sterile and optimistic plans written in the comfort of remote headquarters.”
General Clark answers your questions on the issue of Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds, plus wider questions on the use of military force.
What do you feel will be the next US president’s greatest security issue?
David R Stevens, South Range, US
Wesley Clark: Everything depends on how the US engages Iran. If we strike, that brings a whole new set of issues. If we acquiesce, other issues. If we dialogue, perhaps it’s not too late to deflect Iran’s nuclear aims. But much will come down to Iran as an immediate crisis. And right behind this is Pakistan, and the work to contain and dismantle the al-Qaeda base in the northwest there.
What incentive could the Kurdish leadership in Northern Iraq possibly have to drive out or dry out PKK rebels? Washington needs its Peshmergas. So what can the US offer to put pressure on them, so Turkish pressure can be accommodated?
Marina Zapf, Berlin
Wesley Clark: I believe it will be difficult for the KRG to take effective action against the PKK. Nevertheless, continuing dialogue, and relentless attention will probably see some results. The KRG has enough challenges without a Turkish invasion, so there is some common interest to work from.
We keep hearing that Turkey is a close friend of the US, a key Nato partner, a secular Muslim democracy and a true bridge between cultures. When we needed Turkey to help facilitate the invasion of Iraq they weren’t there to support us. Worse, when a US foreign affairs sub-committee recommends the US finally recognise the Armenian Genocide, Turkey isn’t shy to blackmail us. In your view, what will it take for the US to drop its misguided realpolitik towards Turkey?
Alan Hairabedian, New York
Wesley Clark: I believe Turkey has been a friend, a good friend to the US over the years. But Turkey is entitled to its own public opinion.
The US did a poor job engaging the Turks prior to the Iraq invasion. And they have every right to insist that the US recognise that Turkey is no longer the Ottoman empire of the First World War. Turks are a proud group of people, pushing a vigorous economic program, and earnestly pursuing modernisation and recognition. We would do well to retain Turkey as a strong friend.
Your advice as a friend of Turkey for a more creative and broad response is undoubtedly very timely. But would you agree that Turkey had to turn to an uncreative solution such as invasion after all creative solutions and actions discussed with special US envoy came to nothing and Mr Ralston resigned with frustration following no action by the US administration?
Wesley Clark: As a tactic, the Turkish threat seems to have worked thus far, but we can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes. The goal should be to take out the PKK recruiting effort, isolate the leaders, and bring them to trial. I would be surprised if the Turkish threat hasn’t energised PKK recruiting. And there are probably other adverse impacts, as well, on Turkey.
In your opinion, is there a benefit in welcoming Turkey’s intervention in Iraq as a way to leverage outside help in an effort to decrease the role of the United States in the stabilisation of Iraq? Also, do you find the following quote some what hypocritical: “If they have a problem, they need to work together to resolve it and I am not sure that unilateral incursions are the way to go,” said state department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Ryan Burks, Baltimore, US
Wesley Clark: I don’t believe there’s any benefit to Turkey’s possible invasion, period. It just won’t be useful to us. Incursions are not the way to go.
Are you confident that the execution of current US military doctrine - as outlined by Bush - may lead to the resolution of international conflicts in hot spots around the world? And what is your personal vision on the role of Nato in peace keeping operations and expansion of the Nato in Eastern Europe?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine
Wesley Clark: I don’t agree with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption. Iraq was not an imminent threat, anyway. But I do believe Nato can play a critical role in assuring stability in Eastern Europe.
The Cold War is over, and new states are seeking new associations, and closer relationships with the West. This is not to brand Russia as an adversary. Economic progress in Russia is welcomed by all of us who felt for the terrible plight of so many people throughout the Soviet Union after its collapse. But Nato is primarily a political, rather than a military association.
Hopefully, France’s new President will help Nato achieve the consensus it has long sought and open further the opportunities for new members and new work together, including cooperative work and close relationships with Russia.
Why should the US oppose Turkey’s intervention in Northern Iraq? America invaded Iraq to fight terror. Turkey is just doing the same thing.
Aysa Kilic, Istanbul
Wesley Clark: The US is opposing Turkey’s intervention because an intervention isn’t the best way to deal with the challenge posed by the PKK. A better approach is to work with the Americans and Kurdish Regional government to eliminate PKK bases and arrest terrorist leaders.
As for the comparison with Iraq, the two situations are much different, in that Saddam wasn’t leading a few thousand guerillas. Nevertheless, I was opposed to the Iraq invasion also, as I didn’t believe that Saddam was an imminent threat to the US or that we had exhausted all other means of dealing with him. Force should be used only as a last, last, last resort.
Do you think the Turks are using the PKK attacks as an excuse to annex the oil rich region of Kirkuk? In the likely case of such an invasion, what would America’s official stance be?
Wesley Clark: I have no information regarding Turkish interest in oil resources in Kirkuk. But I don’t believe this is in any way a motivation for the current crisis.
Turkey has for years worked to reduce the threat of the PKK, which has been a violent, destructive and disruptive force inside Turkey. In the 1990s they invaded across the border several times, and America always counselled against it. Now the situation is much more complex. I believe the US would react strongly with diplomatic and other measures to a Turkish cross border invasion. But in fact, that’s now unlikely, simply because of the understanding reached in Washington in early November.
Could this conflict between the PKK and the Turks be the start of a larger, regional war in the Middle East?
Wesley Clark: I doubt that a Turkish invasion would, in itself, be the trigger for a larger war in the region, but it certainly raises the risks. A Turkish invasion would no doubt strengthen Kurdish nationalism, further weakening hopes in Iraq for unity and probably strengthening the appeal of the PKK. Eventually, this might lead to more conflict in the region, but not immediately, and not so long as the US is present on the ground there.
If the Kurds decide to declare independence in the future, do you believe it would be a viable state and would the Turks, Iranians and Syrians conspire to destroy that entity and would or could they invade?
Harivan Jaff, Canada
Wesley Clark: I don’t believe an independent, landlocked Kurdistan, carved up from the territory of potentially hostile neighbours, is a viable proposition. Whether the neighbours invaded or simply crushed insurrections in their own territories would very much depend on the threat posed by the newly emergent state, and how it came into being.
But I do believe it’s possible for the Kurds to gain most everything they seek - economic development, cultural autonomy, substantial self-government, international respect, without an independent state. The KRG already has substantial authority, and will gain more as it displays the kind of moral and political leadership necessary to navigate through a PKK-induced crisis.
About the expert
General Clark is a former supreme commander of Nato, led the alliance of military forces in the Kosovo war (1999) and is now a senior fellow at the Ron Burkle Center at UCLA.