Interview by Aras Ahmed Mhamad:
Dr Mohammed Shareef is a lecturer in International Relations and author of the forthcoming book ‘The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath’. The book is on US foreign policy towards Arab Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan as components of a larger US Iraq policy. The book will be published by the international academic publisher Routledge on 24 February 2014. For this reason, and due to the significance of the subject, I took the opportunity to ask Dr Shareef several questions relevant to the book and the topic.
AAM: What made you write this book?
MS: The main reason that led to my writing of this book is the widely believed conspiracy theories and misapprehensions in Kurdistan on US foreign policy towards Arab Iraq and the Kurdish liberation movement. I was genuinely surprised by what was circulating among the general public and even the political elite!
I realised that objective academic research was necessary on this important topic. This book, I thought, would serve two major purposes; firstly, raise awareness among the public. Secondly, provide a clear and objective understanding to the Kurdish leadership on US foreign policy which would hopefully serve as a guide on how policy makers and practitioners in Kurdistan interact with America.
AAM: What are some of the things that the general public and the political elite, in Iraq and Kurdistan, should know about the US policy?
MS: The public fail to appreciate that US foreign policy is a combination of both US national interests and liberal ideals. US foreign policy has always had a missionary streak. This is based on the premise that the US has an obligation to spread liberal values and its way of life. Both dimensions matter, but when vital strategic interests come to the forefront of US concerns they take precedence over ideals. On one end of the spectrum you have a public that tends to have unrealistic expectations of the US in terms of support in realising their nationalistic goals, particularly with regard to Kurdish independence.
As Henry Kissinger once famously said when asked about the termination of US support to the Kurds “covert action should not be confused with missionary work”. And, on the other end of the spectrum, some people in Kurdistan tend to have unfounded and unsubstantiated views on how the US is intentionally subjugating the Kurds by denying them their rights and freedoms.
AAM: What are some of the misconceptions on US foreign policy towards Iraq and Kurdistan?
MS: The public often tend to have very simplistic or exaggerated views of what America can do or will do! Most people think that Israel is the only driving force behind US Middle East policy. They fail to realise that US foreign policy is an intricate reaction of views, objectives and agendas.
AAM: The US usually attacks weak countries and there are claims that the US does not help countries like Colombia, Afghanistan and Nigeria to resolve their internal issues. Could that be true for Iraq as well?
MS: I think the premise of the question is inaccurate. The fact of the matter is the US usually avoids unnecessary spending of treasure and the deployment of its soldiers into harm’s way, especially in regions or countries which have no significance or relevance to US national interests. In Iraq, however, the US has a profound interest in keeping it stable and unified. For this reason it has spent great treasure and lost thousands of American lives to achieve this goal.
AAM: How would you observe and assess the political agendas and thoughts of the US towards solving the Kurdish Question in general and the disputed areas and Kirkuk in particular?
MS: The US essentially supports the rights of Kurds to have the rights that all Iraqis should have for managing their own political affairs and having a greater say in how their country is run, but they do not support a Kurdish state. A real interest in Kurdish independence has never emerged on the US agenda for two major reasons. Firstly, nationalism in the United States was defined by creed and a sense of mission and was not based on ethnicity, which was largely associated with European nations and the treaty of Westphalia of 1648.
The very nature and structure of the US denies any such sentiment significant value. The US, a nation of ethnic pluralism, was established by immigrants from all corners of the earth and as such no ethnic national identity has been established. Thus any attempts to carve out ethnic nation states from post-colonial nation states hold little merit in US foreign policy. This also explains the Americans’ early proposal for geographic federalism, based on the 18 provincial boundaries of Iraq, which was only overruled because of Kurdish protests.
Secondly, the US has demonstrated no genuine interest in national liberation movements whose aims do not coincide with furthering US national interests. US national interest has overridden any regard or consideration for national liberation movements abroad. The fact that any support for self-determination would encroach on the national interest and sovereignty of other states has made such support inappropriate. As the ultimate guiding moral principle of a state is its survival, the US has only encouraged and supported these movements where US national interest has been at stake.
The risk of breaching the national interest of another state, where little US interest has been at stake, is out of bounds in US foreign policy. Consequently any support for Kurdish independence in the near future falls squarely within this formula. Any attempt at advancing Kurdish separatism based on US support has been, and will be, met by a negative response as it touches on US interests with NATO ally Turkey, potential future and former ally Iran, Arab Iraq and a large number of friendly Arab nations. Having said that, US support for Kurdish independence is still possible providing the Kurdish leadership takes into account several strategic considerations! As for the disputed territories, the US supports the Iraqi constitution but perceives the application of Article 140 as a domestic Iraqi issue.
It is worth noting that the US involved the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and its successive special representatives since 2007 (and onwards) to tackle Article 140, as it wanted both to delay it and to avoid taking sides.
AAM: Iraqi Kurdistan has all the merits and requirements of an independent country including language, unique culture, heritage and traditions, and most importantly natural resources? How would you comment on that?
MS: Kurdistan meets most of the criteria of a sovereign state:
1. A defined territory.
2. A permanent population.
3. A government and
4. A capacity to enter into relations with other states.
Right now, however, the international environment is not suitable for independence. An independent Kurdistan in the future is likely to be achieved through some sort of Velvet Divorce between Arab Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, akin to the dissolution of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993. The US may play a role in negotiating this secession. The best way for that to happen is to have an agreement with the Iraqi government. To achieve this, the issue of the disputed territories should be solved because it is very difficult to achieve independence if you do not know which territory you are going to control.
Kurdistan is already self-sufficient with its own army and is developing its own oil resources these are helpful factors. However, internally, the KRG must demonstrate that an independent Kurdistan will be a viable entity; this can be demonstrated through good governance and economically sound policies by the KRG.
The Americans will certainly support the Kurds if they feel that they are committed to democracy and the rule of law. Kurdistan must establish a democratic government of institutions. Externally, on the other hand, the KRG must guarantee that regional stability will be maintained and that an independent entity will not upset regional US allies and threaten their territorial integrity. This can be achieved through security agreements and the establishment of excellent trade and diplomatic relations with regional states.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012. He is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune and a contributing writer for the ekurd.net and doznews.com. He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper, the only Kurdish-American newspaper in print. He is also the Editor in Chief of the Sorani section at the doznews.com
- For book details go to: http://routledge-ny.com/books/details/9780415719902/