On July 14, 2011, Frédéric Tissot, France's consul-general in Iraqi Kurdistan, stood up at Bastille Day celebrations in Erbil and, in the presence of regional president Masud Barzani, spoke about the need for freedom and democracy in the region. "What has happened in the past is nothing compared to the future awaiting this nation," he declared," We have to go forward, to insist on the role of Parliament, the role of women, human rights and the freedom of journalism." He warned Barzani not respond to demonstrators "with torture because people are thirsty for freedom, justice and self-respect in their lives."
Barzani responded to Tissot's call for a better future with an appeal to the past. "The younger generation should have connections and know about the history of their country," he declared. For too long, however, Barzani has confused Kurds' admiration for his father with adulation for himself, and assumed that public appreciation for the peshmerga's role against Saddam decades ago should allow him to conflate Kurdish national aims with his family's ambitions.
Tissot's bluntness was refreshing. Certainly, the atrocities Barzani's security forces and family have committed against journalists, students, and even children have not gone unnoticed in foreign capitals. Barzani has ruled for more than 20 years, and is fast becoming Kurdistan's Mubarak.
Tissot's speech was important for another reason. Too many diplomats still believe that diplomacy means cultivating good relations at any cost, rather than standing on principle when confronted with dictators and human rights abusers. This is especially a problem among American diplomats (even those who do not plan to seek Kurdish oil contracts upon their retirement). Frank Ricciardone, the American ambassador to Egypt between 2005 and 2008, famously told Egyptian students, "President Mubarak is well known in the United States. He is respected. If he had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage." Any American with experience outside the embassy walls knew this to be false, however, as did anyone who ever hailed a taxi in Cairo and listened to the driver's complaints. Certainly, a lesson of the Arab spring for diplomats should have been that ingratiating themselves to dictators rather than affirming rule-of-law is counterproductive.
Visiting congressmen too often also falsely praise dictators in a misguided attempt to develop relations. On June 28, 2011, U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, a former Democratic presidential candidate, told Syrian television that President Bashar al-Assad was "highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians." While Kucinich later said he was misquoted, a videotape of the interview showed him to be a liar. He may have hoped to ingratiate himself to Assad in order to facilitate diplomacy, but dictators know otherwise: They view sycophants as useful idiots but use their interviews to imply endorsement. Officials who believe their praise for dictators to be sophisticated diplomacy are simply wrong.
Tissot's moral clarity was both refreshing as it was necessary. Barzani may not be a murderer, but as the death of young journalist Sardasht Osman shows, he clearly employs them or protects members of his family who commit grievous abuse. Too often, his website and his party's press depict visiting ambassadors, generals, and congressmen as endorsing his rule and praising Kurdish democracy. The truth, however, is far different. What Barzani broadcasts as praise, his interlocutors see merely as politeness. Senate staff members have been shocked by the juxtaposition between their messages and the Kurdistan Regional Government's synopsis of the meetings.
No amount of diplomatic politeness can hide the fact that Kurdistan needs democracy, reform, freedom of the press, and justice. Fortunately, ordinary Kurds know enough to understand that the press releases issued by Sar-e Rash are incomplete at best and fictional at worst. Tissot's speech was important—not only because they bluntly told a president what he needs to hear and reminded the Kurds that the West hears their cries—but also because he reminds the growing diplomatic corps in Erbil that truth is more important than nicety.