The Skeptics

Kurdistan, Catalonia and the Iran Deal: The Perils of Overreach

Advocates of Catalonia’s independence from Spain appear to have made a similar blunder. Sentiment for independence has been building in that region for decades, and the regional government decided to hold a referendum regarding that option on October 1. As in the case of Kurdistan, there were clear warnings not to go down that path. The central government in Madrid was emphatic that such a move would not be tolerated. Indeed, the Spanish authorities sent police and other security personnel to prevent the balloting. That move led to ugly incidents in which those units behaved in a barbaric fashion, beating hundreds of mostly peaceful pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona.

Despite such actions, the referendum went forward and produced an outcome favoring independence. Spanish authorities have since greatly hardened their stance. Madrid’s first demand was for Catalonia to hold new elections to replace the existing regional government. When the Catalans refused, and instead issued a declaration of independence, the Spanish parliament voted to oust officials of that government and to dissolve the elected regional legislative body. The vote also granted the prime minister unprecedented authority under the Spanish constitution to put down the rebellion. Through more subtle means, the Catalans might have achieved greatly enhanced autonomy for their region. By boldly pushing for independence, they are in danger of being subjected to harsh repression from Madrid. As in the case of Kurdistan, overreaching has led to a severe setback at a minimum and potential disaster at worst.

One might think that U.S. leaders are perceptive enough to avoid similar folly, but the record suggests otherwise. The United States achieved its initial objectives in Afghanistan, routing Al Qaeda, ousting the Taliban regime that had given that terrorist group safe haven and eventually killing Osama bin Laden. However, Washington was not content with such modest but important accomplishments. Instead, U.S. leaders prolonged and escalated America’s military intervention. They also changed the objective from punishing and defanging Al Qaeda to a murky counterinsurgency and nation-building mission. The predictable result is a war now in its sixteenth year, with little prospect of achieving those impractical goals.

The Trump administration shows signs of similar overreach with regard to policy toward Iran. President Obama wisely collaborated with other international powers to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran to limit Iran’s nuclear program. By all reasonable accounts, the plan is working and Iran’s program remains under severe restraints that would prevent a breakout to build nuclear weapons. But President Trump, succumbing to the blandishments of ultra-hawkish Iranophobes, has refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, opening the door for new U.S. sanctions and the possible torpedoing of the agreement. Once again, the United States flirts with overreaching, undoing an agreement that is working well, and creating the prospect of a renewed, very dangerous crisis with Iran.

Wise officials in any country need to resist the temptation to overreach, thereby jeopardizing existing achievements and the potential for modest additional gains. Veteran Wall Street investors have a saying: “bulls make money, bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered.” Political leaders should heed a similar admonition.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

Image: Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona, October 29, 2017. Reuters/Jon Nazca


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