Commentary

The United States as Global Cop: Arresting Consequences

By Ivan Eland
February 26, 1999

The United States has injected itself into yet another volatile ethnic squabble on the other side of the world, and it’s an involvement we may all soon regret.

U.S. officials reluctantly acknowledged — after Turkish officials, including the prime minister, had already let the cat out of the bag — that Washington had tipped off Ankara that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was in the Greek embassy in Kenya. Turkish agents then grabbed him on his way to the airport and spirited him off to Turkey for trial. U.S. officials admitted that the arrest was the culmination of an intensive four-month effort by the U.S. and Turkish governments to snare Ocalan. American intelligence information and diplomatic pressure on countries to deny him sanctuary were the key to his capture.

Ocalan and his Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) are on the State Department’s list of terrorists. (Strangely, governments that also commit brutal repression — including allies such as Turkey — do not appear on that list.) And, in fact, over the past decade, the PKK has been one of the most active and well-financed terrorist groups in the world. The group has struck Turkish targets worldwide, including a coordinated attack against Turkish diplomatic and commercial targets in more than 30 cities in six Western European countries. But until now the PKK’s animosity has been reserved largely for the Turkish government.

What does the PKK want from Turkey? Ocalan, shortly before his capture, told an Irish journalist that he would be willing to settle for autonomy for the Kurds, rather than independence from Turkey. Not too far away, in Kosovo, the United States would consider itself fortunate indeed to get the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to settle for autonomy within Yugoslavia. But consistency in the American approach to such conflicts is nowhere to be found. Sometimes we support foreign governments in their attempts to defend internationally recognized boundaries. At other times we support rebel groups that seek to alter those boundaries.

In the disputes over Kurdistan and Kosovo, the grievances are long-standing and the antagonists on both sides have used brutal tactics. Such ethnic conflicts are spawning grounds for terrorist groups. If the United States is perceived as coercing the Kosovar Albanians into settling for autonomy rather than independence, the KLA (which has links to arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden) may begin to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. targets at home and abroad.

But as risky as our involvement in Kosovo is, meddling in the dispute between the Turks and Kurds is an even bigger blunder. The takeover of embassies and violent demonstrations all over the world (as far away as Australia) by Kurds in response to Ocalan’s arrest indicate how emotional that dispute has become. Those incidents also show the extent of the Kurdish global support network.

European governments, such as those of Germany and Italy, astutely passed up chances to become embroiled in Turkey’s domestic dispute and thus become targets for Kurdish terrorism. Unfortunately, the United States was not so adroit. The PKK funds Kurdish organizations in the United States that could become terrorist cells.

If the PKK launches a terrorist campaign against the United States, it will probably be delayed and surreptitious, much like Muammar Qaddafi’s campaign for years after President Reagan’s ill-fated bombing of Qaddafi’s complex in Tripoli in 1986. That campaign included the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.

The United States should have also learned a lesson from Osama bin Laden’s coordinated bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks were in retaliation for the well-publicized help the Central Intelligence Agency provided in the capture of Islamic militants by the Albanian government and their extradition to Egypt. Now, thanks to our ostensible ally, Turkey, the world knows the U.S. intelligence agents helped apprehend Abdullah Ocalan.

By acting literally as the world’s policeman, and helping to apprehend “terrorists” for repressive governments, the United States is effectively interjecting itself into the internal affairs of sovereign states in which it has no vital interest. Should the “terrorists” decide to bite back, we run the risk of horrific consequences. In a post-Cold War strategic environment in which even comparatively weak terrorist groups are more willing and able to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, retaliation could be catastrophic. The U.S. government needs to ask itself whether playing the role of international cop is worth a half million dead in an American city.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.