International Involvement in State-Building and National Liberation

Dana El Kurd highlights her recent work comparing the cases of Palestine and Iraqi Kurdistan, and the impact of US intervention on state-building trajectories.

Past American administrations have asserted their commitment – through discourse and, more rarely, through action – to the Palestinian state-building project under the parameters set forth by the Oslo Accords of 1994. These essentially outlined the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a governing apparatus, meant to build a Palestinian state with increasing control over the West Bank and Gaza territories, intended for completion by 1999. Palestinians were never granted their state, but the PA remained, and negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis continued.

Under President Trump, however, the US set new precedents regarding a number of key issues, including the final status of Jerusalem, (by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, thereby legitimizing Israeli claims to the city in spite of international law). They did not mind Palestinians using the terminology of state and statehood, but without actually conferring sovereignty, territorial contiguity, or a monopoly on the use of violence within its boundaries. Despite the coming recalibration of US policy on Palestine under the Biden administration, this state of affairs – accelerated by the revisionism of President Trump’s foreign policy team – seems to have moved the likelihood of building a Palestinian state beyond the realm of possibility. Moreover, the many years of Israeli intransigence on Palestinian statehood, backed more or less by the Americans, has had a detrimental effect on internal Palestinian politics.

The question of international impact on state-building projects is thus more relevant than ever, for both understanding the Palestinian question as well as national liberation movements more generally. Such movements, transforming into state-building projects, have increasingly operated in a globalized context and have had to contend with both local challenges and international pressures. In my paper published in the 12th volume of Middle East Law and Governance, titled “The Impact of American Involvement on National Liberation: Polarization and Repression in Palestine and Iraqi Kurdistan,” I examine the role of international involvement in the trajectory of the Palestinian national liberation movement within the Palestinian territories, and make a comparison between the case of Palestine and the Kurdish national liberation movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. I specifically look at the role of the US, and chose cases which allow us to compare and contrast outcomes given the American position towards each movement. In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, the US has been an ally, whereas in the case of Palestine, the US has often been an obstacle. By leveraging this variation, I outline a theory of international involvement and its role in state development and national liberation movements. I use process-tracing methods, focusing on particular variables of interest in each case across time. These include polarization amongst elites which paralyze the movements, and a divergence between political elites and their public which makes political elites unaccountable. To do so, I look for indicators of elite polarization such as the emergence of two camps in the political landscape of each case. I also look for indicators of public opinion. For each indicator, I look at how it fluctuates over time and over varying levels of international involvement. In keeping with the process-tracing method, I also address alternative explanations.

I argue that international involvement leads to authoritarian conditions within these state-building projects as well as paralyzes the efficacy and coherence of these movements. Specifically, international involvement creates polarization amongst political elites, and a divergence between elite and public preferences. This dichotomy produces authoritarian conditions. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan and Palestine, the impact of the US had similar results, despite divergent intentions on the part of the US.

In Palestine, the first wave of US involvement attempted to intervene on the part of Israeli interests. Then, following the Second Intifada, the US became heavily involved in internal Palestinian politics, in order to ensure Palestinians would not threaten Israeli interests again. For that reason, they supported Fatah over Hamas and other opposition groups, by providing training and funding to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and assisting in repression. This was all to the detriment of the state-building project. Indeed, the US had pressured the PA to crack down on the Islamist opposition prior to elections. Then, when Hamas won, the US supported the PA in overturning the results. This polarization has turned into two separate governments – one in the West Bank and one in Gaza – and reconciliation remains elusive. American support for one side of this polarization has also emboldened the PA in continuing its repression of Palestinian society, attacking academic freedom and freedom of the press, as well as expanding cybercrime laws to target dissent. No state can be built under such circumstances.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, American involvement was much more supportive of Kurdish aspirations than in the case of Palestine, for reasons related to Cold War balancing and pressuring the Iraqi Baathist regime. From providing a no-fly zone to supporting Kurdish demands in the Iraqi constitution, American foreign and military policy has supported Iraqi Kurds in every way except the final step of secession. Despite this support, we find that American involvement had similar effects: polarization between elites, an increasing lack of accountability to the public, and increased authoritarian conditions.

Fueled by American backing, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - Mulla Mustafa Barzani - became embroiled in intra-ethnic betrayals, including killing Kurdish activists for the Shah of Iran. Moreover, Barzani himself began acting unilaterally and outwardly repressed his political opponents within the party. Barzani’s heavy-handedness angered the Kurdish public and manifested itself in the creation of a rival party: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The leadership of the PUK consisted of ex-KDP members who had once struggled under Barzani’s authoritarian conduct and aligned themselves more with leftist groups globally. The two parties competed for foreign backing, as well as internal support and recruits. Polarization grew to such an extent that clashes broke out between the two groups on a number of occasions. Moreover, following American support for Kurdish self-governance after the first Gulf War, elections in 1992 proved that polarization existed not just at the level of political leadership, but at the public level as well. The Kurdish parliament had an almost equal number of delegates from the PUK and the KDP. Both parties had also won in two distinct geographic areas. This state of affairs continues to this day, with Kurdish society deeply divided.

If American involvement had remained indirect, or non-existent, in either case, we would see a very different pattern of political development. Divisions may still have emerged amongst Palestinian and Kurdish leadership over particular policies and strategies, but leadership on either side of the issue would have had to contend with a real opposition and come to some consensus or compromise, or risk facing public pressure and de-legitimization. Without the US providing arms and security training, Palestinian leadership would not have been able to rely on repression as a tool of silencing public opposition; rather, they would have had to make concessions to their populace whenever policies were challenged. The same would be true in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan. Simply put, without the disrupting effect of American involvement, mechanisms of accountability would have continued to exist within the national liberation movements and their eventual statehood projects. Instead, both cases have been put on a path of increased authoritarianism or continued internal conflict and possible collapse.

In sum, this analysis indicates international involvement, creates a self-reinforcing dynamic of polarization and increased authoritarianism within national liberation movements. This bodes poorly for subsequent state formation processes.

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Dana El Kurd is an Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and a researcher in its sister institution, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. She holds a PhD in Government from The University of Texas at Austin. Her recent book, titled “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine,” is out now with Oxford University Press.

Find Dana on Twitter: @danaelkurd