When President Obama took the podium at the United Nations General Assembly, most eyes focused on what he would say about the Palestinians' bid for statehood. But Obama's comments on America's future relationship with Iraq were perhaps as important. "At the end of this year, America's military operation in Iraq will be over," Obama declared, continuing, "We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq — for its government and for its security forces, for its people and for their aspirations."
While debate has continued in recent months in Washington and Baghdad about the wisdom and need for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq, Obama's statement appears to end the debate. Presidents seldom write their own speeches, but rather rely on professional speechwriters who collect inputs from and sometimes circulate drafts past other senior advisors in order to ensure that the speech conforms to policy intent. Wording is not arbitrary, and so Obama seems to have left no room open for an American base in Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has lobbied quietly but persistently for the United States to establish a permanent base in Kurdistan. At a press conference in Erbil on June 22, 2007, Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan head Jalal Talabani said an American base would "on one hand protect Kurdistan from external threats, and on the other hand not allow terrorists to destabilize a safe area." Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani followed suit the following year, declaring, "If the US asks to keep their troops in Kurdistan, I think the parliament, the people and government of Kurdistan will welcome this warmly."
While the Iranian government objects to the possibility of an American presence in Kurdistan and Kurdish officials such as Nazem Dabbaq, the PUK representative in Tehran, try to assure the Iranian government that there are no negotiations underway, it is precisely because Kurdish officials fear their neighbors' ambitions that they want American forces to stay. The peshmerga may be better trained and better equipped than at any point in its existence but, behind nationalist bluster, even peshmerga officials acknowledge they still pale in quantity of men and quality of training and equipment to the reconstituted Iraqi army and the countries surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan.
Bases also inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, provide a host of well-paying service industry jobs. A stable region like Kurdistan can also amplify benefits as Americans able to leave the base can patronize restaurants and take advantage of other local facilities.
The United States certainly should have a strategic interest in maintaining a permanent presence in either Iraq and/or its Kurdish federal region. While Iran continues to pose a strategic challenge to the United States, Obama advisors and their proxies in Washington quietly acknowledge what they will not say publicly: The United States is not prepared to confront a nuclear Iran and will instead rely on containment and deterrence to counter the challenge.
Containment, however, requires prepositioning of equipment, trip lines, and perhaps even regional basing. While the United States maintains bases in Qatar and Kuwait, and a base in all but name in Bahrain, and a base in Turkey, there are major gaps in its ability to contain Iran. The American presence in the Caspian region is limited, and it is improbable that Afghanistan will allow permanent American bases so long as Afghans believe that the Pakistani and perhaps even Chinese interest in Afghanistan will be of longer duration.
Nevertheless, the apparent decision to forego basing is more a blow to Iraqi Kurdistan than it is to the United States, and should be cause for reflection in Erbil. The American posture in the region is clearly in flux: Uzbekistan expelled Americans from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase is 2005, and Kyrgyzstan may do likewise in the next few years. Behind the thin veneer of diplomatic nicety, the United States does not trust Turkey. Not only do American strategists question Turkey's orientation but, from a much more practical standpoint, during lease negotiations, Turkey seeks to extract too high a price for the American presence even demanding, for example, the right to veto missions flown from the facilities. Against the loss or the potential loss of these facilities, the Americans need further bases in the region, if for no other reason than to maintain the same logistical capabilities.
Given how the United States and Kurdistan should have a mutual interest in an American military base, Kurds and Kurdish officials should ask why Washington passed over Kurdistan. Here Romania is instructive. Like their Kurdish counterparts, the Romanian government actively courted American forces in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. While Kurdish authorities and the international media gave high profile coverage to the entry of American forces into Kurdistan—most famously with the parachute entrance of the 173rd Airborne Division, the Romanian government quietly allowed its Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the Black Sea town of Constanța to be the staging ground for around 7,000 troops heading into Iraq.
The Romanians, however, have outshone Kurdistan in many ways. Romania may be near the bottom of the barrel in terms of press freedom by European Union standards, but it still outshines Iraqi Kurdistan, where unresolved attacks on journalists sully the region's reputation internationally. Corruption remains a major problem in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Romania, but the Romanian government—pressured by the European Union—has undertaken serious measures to combat graft, whereas in Kurdistan, it is the government which is the problem. Romanian officials do not buy ostentatious villas in Washington, DC.
The issue is not only one of good governance, however, but, from an American point of view, security. Too many Kurdish officials have shown willingness to betray confidential data to Iranians for money. While Kurdish officials often express gratitude to the American government for Iraq's liberation, such statements are undercut by KRG statements about American politics in Washington. At one point, the KRG office in Washington used its listserv to endorse conspiracies about alleged Bush administration lies to force the war in Iraq, an action which raised questions about Kurdish reliability.
A permanent American presence in Iraqi Kurdistan should have been a win-win proposition for Americans and Iraqi Kurdistan. While Iraqi Kurdistan is a land replete with super-rich and desperately poor, a base would have helped bolster the middle class which Kurdish authorities have done too little to protect. An American base would also have provided a tripwire which would make Turkish and Iranian forces think twice about violating the Kurdistan Region's borders and those of Iraq. A base in Kurdistan would have also made the Pentagon less reliant on a hostile Turkey, something which would be welcome by most Kurds. Alas, sometimes corruption and poor leadership has a cost.