Why are American relations with Iraqi Kurdistan stagnant?
by Michael Rubin
I would like to begin by asking for a moment of silence in memory of Soran Mama Hama and Sardosht Osman, two courageous journalists who were murdered because they sought a free press and equality under the law for all in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thank you. They will not be forgotten.
I also want to thank Lvin for organizing this seminar. I am honored to come to Kurdistan as a guest of a truly independent organization, rather than simply as someone who was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Ten years ago this month, while I was a lecturer at the University of Sulaymani, I gave my first seminar in Iraqi Kurdistan. I spoke about American politics and the election of 2000 which was, at the time, still undecided. Today, I will talk about another topic: The Kurdish lobby in the United States and how the Kurdish government might become more effective in its American outreach.
Today, Kurds do not have an effective lobby in Washington. This should be obvious. Right now, relations between the United States and Turkey are at their worst in 50 years. The Wikileaks documents demonstrate this. Many people in the United States talk about Turkey more as an enemy than an ally. Why, then, has the Kurdistan Regional Government been so powerless to develop a strong relationship between the United States and Iraqi Kurdistan?
It is necessary, however, to acknowledge the strengths of Iraqi Kurdistan:
The region's development is amazing. I have been coming to Iraqi Kurdistan for a decade. When I first arrived, there was great uncertainty among Iraqi Kurds. The threat of Saddam Hussein loomed over the region. In December 2000, for example, Saddam's forces probed international resolve around Baadre. A professor at the University of Salahuddin which the Kurdistan Democratic Party's foreign relations office assigned as my point-of-contact as I adjusted to Kurdish society quietly excused himself, saying he was afraid that if he helped an American, he could suffer consequences once Saddam returned.
Let us fast forward ten years. I have been very critical of rampant corruption and nepotism on the part of the major Kurdish political parties, and the Kurdistan Regional Government's increasing repression. Nevertheless, it is also true that Mam Jalal, Hero Khan, and Barham Salih deserve credit for the region's development. It is good to see that Gorran leader Noshirwan Mustafa, former Sulaymani governor Dana Majid, and the rest of the Gorran leadership have both continued and built upon this legacy. Kurds and Americans must also thank the peshmerga, whose courageousness in the face of Saddam Hussein, enabled the opportunity which Iraqi Kurds enjoy today.
Freedom is not consistent across Iraqi Kurdistan, however. Sulaymani enjoys more openness than other areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. The difference between Sulaymani and Erbil today, for example, is analogous to the difference between Lebanon and Syria. Neither is completely free, but Lebanese have far more civil space than Syria, which remains a police state.
It is a credit to Sulaymani that two days ago, courageous students, intellectuals, and ordinary people stood up against the Kurdistan Regional Government's law restricting peoples' right to demonstrate. Peaceful public protest can only happen in Sulaymani; it is no longer possible in Erbil or Duhok.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long considered the United States an ally; it is no secret that Iraqi Kurdistan is the most pro-American region of Iraq, at least for now. Why, then, is the Kurdistan Regional Government failing in its relationship with America? Why does the United States not support the Kurdish position more?
There are several reasons.
First, the Kurdish leadership fails to maintain both dignity and credibility. Too often, the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government will say "We are a democracy." Democracies, however, do not murder journalists and then lie about it. Democracies do not threaten independent newspapers with $1 billion lawsuits, sue writers who pen critical editorials, or bankrupt journalists who ask tough questions. Nor do democracies have one set of laws for the children of party leaders, and another set of laws for ordinary people.
The Kurdistan Regional Government's declarations of entitlement also play poorly. Too often, the Kurdistan leadership says, "We are your allies. You owe us." Certainly, the Kurds were American allies in the war in 2003. Americans appreciate this. And Americans have helped the Kurds, helping to protect the Kurds in 1991 as we should also have protected the Shiites. Americans defended the no-fly zone. Kurds may not understand why, in such circumstances, Americans do not trust the Kurdish leadership more, and why our partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan is not stronger. The problem is not with the Kurdish people, but rather with the Iraqi Kurdish government. Sometimes officials in Washington have private conversations with Kurdish leaders. The words are meant to be between Sar-e Rash and the White House. Within one hour, it seems, however, that senior Kurdish leaders betray the American confidence to Qasim Sulaymani, the Iranian Qods Force general who is responsible for plotting the murder of Americans. Too often, it seems, senior Kurdish officials see American confidence as something to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Americans are guilty as well. A corrupt American policeman or a corrupt American army colonel can come to Kurdistan and become a prince. They may tell officials they are well-connected in Washington. But if they are known as thieves in Washington, then people ask, "Why does the Kurdish leadership surround itself with such dishonest people?"
The Kurds say they have no friends but the mountains. Certainly, the root of this quip is the repeated betrayal which Kurds have suffered. In 1975, for example, Henry Kissinger withdrew American support from the Kurdish uprising without regard to the human cost of his decision. The Kurds, however, are also responsible for their lack of true friends. Kurdish officials—especially party members—act crudely toward Americans and other foreigners.
In 2000-2001, I spent an academic year in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the Kurdish authorities provided me with a place to stay and a small allowance for food, I did not receive a salary from the Kurdistan Regional Government, nor did they fund my university program or think-tank, nor did I seek to be included in their ever-expanding circle of advisors. My time in Iraqi Kurdistan was instead financed by a small grant from the Carnegie Council for Ethnics in International Affairs (www.cceia.org).
I advocated a close Kurdish partnership with the United States because I saw it as an American interest. I advocated effectively for Kurdish human rights and to raise awareness about the threat Saddam Hussein posed to Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions. I also wrote about ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk, the aftermath of the genocidal Anfal campaign. By comparing Iraqi Kurdistan under sanctions with the rest of Iraq under the same sanctions, I was able to show that the problem in Iraq was not sanctions, but the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein.
That was not good enough for many Kurdish officials and party members, because I did not agree with them completely, nor was I willing to conduct their propaganda blindly. I recognized the growing corruption in Kurdish society and, even though I know my position may not be popular in this room, I also disagreed with many Kurdish officials with regard to the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party] which both then and now the American government classifies as a terrorist group. We can debate that issue another day. My point is that I agreed with Kurdish authorities perhaps 75 percent of the time. Too many Kurds, however, say, "You either agree with us 100% of the time, or you are our enemy."
Now, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani are sophisticated. But many members of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are not. Mid-level officials think, "I will attack this American. I will say that he is a Turkish agent, or an Israeli agent, or that he hates Kurds." They believe that if they badmouth foreigners, that they can impress Talabani and Barzani with their loyalty. This has happened not only to me, but also to many other Americans.
Make no mistake: This is one reason why Kurds lose friends. As Republicans lost popularity before the 2008 presidential elections, Kurdish officials in the United States began to attack Republicans; they found a new hero in Senator Joseph Biden, who would soon become Vice President. The Kurdistan Regional Government's representative in Washington even went so far to send an article on his office's email criticizing the Republicans for liberating Iraq, in order to please Democrats who said Republicans lied in order to invade Iraq. Now, two years later, as Democrats suffer in the polls, they attack Biden and praise Republicans. Such behavior may work in an autocratic society, but it does not in a democracy like the United States. The people whom the Kurds attack—even if they do so only in Kurdish and only behind the backs of their victims—never forget. Certainly, American officials will continue to conduct their relationships with professionalism, but cold professionalism and friendship are not the same.
This brings us to another point: American politics. Many Kurdish officials ask: "Who is better for the Kurds, the Democrats or Republicans?" My answer is this is the wrong question to ask. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is something for Americans to worry about. Why should a Kurd, unless he is an American citizen, care? It would be wrong for such a Kurd to pick one party or another, just as it would be wrong for me to support any Kurdish political party.
Make no mistake: I am not a Kurd, and so I will never support the KDP, or PUK, or Gorran. As an American policy analyst, I will look at Kurdish politics only through the lens of American interests. When I criticize the Kurdistan Regional Government's corruption, nepotism, ballot-stuffing, and repression of civil society, I do so because I fear if these problems are not corrected and if Kurds associate them with U.S. support for the Kurdistan Regional Government, then anti-Americanism will grow.
So if Kurds should not favor the Democrats or the Republicans, how should they approach American politics? Kurds should look at individual American politicians and ask who supports the Kurdish position on Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution? Who supports the Kurdish position on oil? Who understands the Anfal? Who stood for the Kurdish people against Saddam in the past and who will oppose other Saddam's now and in the future? If the Kurds do this, they will find they can have friends in both political parties, and that, therefore, their interests will be secure regardless of from which party the U.S. president comes.
Let me give you another example. The Democrats did very well in the 2008 elections which saw Obama win the White House. I am a Republican and wish the Republicans had won, but the American people spoke, and so I will respect President Obama as my commander-in-chief. Not every race was settled on November 4, 2008, however. In Georgia, there was a run-off election between a Democrat and Republican. The Kurdistan Regional Government's office in Washington helped organize support for the Democrat because they wanted to please Obama. This was a bad strategy for two reasons: First, the Republican in Georgia won. Perhaps he now sees the Kurds as his opponents. Now, two years later, the political calculus in the United States has changed. Republicans are resurgent. We are not Erbil or Duhok: More than one party is allowed to win. By playing American politics two years ago, the Kurdistan Regional Government risks its influence after 2012.
Despite past mistakes and miscalculations, there are ways in which the Kurdistan Regional Government representation in Washington can augment Kurdish interests. The Kurdistan Regional Government invites many retired generals, many businessmen, and many writers to Iraqi Kurdistan. This is a good idea: The more people that are exposed to Iraqi Kurdistan and, for that matter, the rest of Iraq, the better. But, Kurdish authorities mismanage these visits. When Americans visit Iraqi Kurdistan as guests of the Regional Government, all they do is see one minister after another, and have feasts at every stop. Americans already know that Kurds make the best kabobs. But, is that really why the Kurdistan Regional government is spending millions of dollars to bring Americans over? Isn't Kirkuk more important? Why not bring American delegations to Kirkuk, to learn about its history and its importance to the Kurdistan Region today? Why not bring Americans to places that suffered during Anfal besides Halabja? I know that the Anfal was not just in Halabja, but most American visitors do not. The Anfal wiped out dozens of villages and Saddam Hussein's government used chemical weapons on a number of occasions. As tragic as the Halabja attack was, the Anfal was not limited to 5,000 people in Halabja.
I have limited time and there is much more to discuss, but I want to leave time for questions. So with that, I thank you. Zur Spas.