Why won’t Washington support Kurdish Independence?

By Michael Rubin:

Not since the second decade of the twentieth century has the Kurdish dream of independence appeared so attainable. Saddam Hussein is gone, and Kurdish oil has earned billions of dollars. The Syrian civil war has enabled Salih Muslim’s Democratic Union Party to consolidate control over much of Syrian Kurdistan. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s peace deal with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan has led many Turkish Kurds to believe themselves to be on the verge of confederation inside Turkey, an intermediary step toward independence. Even if the Turkish initiative collapses, Erdoğan has confirmed Öcalan as the indispensable man, undoing more than a decade’s worth of Turkish efforts to consign the PKK leader to irrelevancy.

Kurds might expect the Obama administration to support Kurdish ambitions. After all, while still a senator, Vice President Joseph Biden famously supported a tripartite division of Iraq. American officials openly worry about growing Iranian influence Baghdad-controlled Iraq. Kurdish officials expect the many former American officials—both Democrats and Republicans—who are heavily invested in Kurdish oil to hew Erbil’s position in its disputes with Baghdad.

Why then has the official position within the United States remained so unsympathetic to Kurdish aspirations?  Much of the reason rests in the leading Kurdish political families. For many in Washington, be they congressmen, academics, or journalists, the face of the Kurdish struggle was Barham Salih, the U.S.-based representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) throughout much of the 1990s. Barham was outgoing, articulate, and responsible. He would keep meetings he made, and recognized that the Kurdish struggle was greater than the intra-Kurdish politics which so often dominated the Kurds’ own discussions. Most importantly, he represented the ideals of a Kurdistan built on its merits rather than on its family connections. Much of the positive perception of Kurdistan in the United States remains directly attributable to Barham.

When Barham returned to Kurdistan in 2000 to take the PUK’s premiership, PUK leader Jalal Talabani appointed his brother-in-law Muhammad Sabir to take over the Washington office.  Sabir was an able manager, but he lacked Barham’s charisma. Much to the chagrin of those closest to Talabani, American journalists and officials often bypassed Sabir and emailed or telephoned Barham directly. The message should have been clear: While family trumped ability in Kurdistan, the opposite is true in Washington. Nevertheless, in 2004, Talabani appointed his then-27-year-old son Qubad to take over Iraqi Kurdistan’s representation in Washington.  Qubad was charismatic and cultivated the business ties which Kurdistan prioritized. Almost a year after Qubad’s return to Kurdistan to take up a position in the Kurdish cabinet, however, his old post remains vacant. The message is clear: only family matters.

Fast forward almost a decade: Elections loom in Iraqi Kurdistan and, despite Regional President Masud Barzani being limited by law to two terms, many Kurds believe their president may seek to remain in office for longer. While Barzani himself has said he will uphold the law, party colleagues have suggested both that his first term does not count against the two term limit and that no other leader approaches Barzani’s pedigree and level of respect. Therefore, they argue, forcing Barzani to adhere to the constitution would undercut popular will. This is a debate that Kurds will resolve on their own, but to suggest that any man is indispensable is effectively to argue against Kurdistan’s readiness for statehood: If, after more than two decades of autonomy, Kurdistan is unable to provide a talented and able Washington representative from the new generation of Kurdish university graduates and young professionals; or if there is no leader among Kurdistan’s millions of people able to manage government and further develop the institutions of state, then the message not only Washington but every Western democracy hears is that Kurdistan is not capable of independent statehood.

Such a conclusion may be unfair to Kurds, but nepotism and political corruption erode trust and reputation not only at home, but also abroad. The best move Barzani could make – should he place nationalism above family fortune and if he wishes both to convince the United States that the Kurds are ready for statehood and that it is in the American interest to support such statehood – would be if he were first to appoint an able representative to head the Kurds’ Washington office, irrespective of that nominee’s family name or political affiliation. Second, he should acknowledge that he will step down and allow free and fair elections.  A transfer of power in Erbil would demonstrate to the world that Kurdistan is rich not only in oil resources, but also in human capital. By allowing his own henchmen to suggest otherwise, however, he hurts Kurdish aspirations.  The implication that no one can replace Barzani is to convince foreign governments not to bet on Kurdistan.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.

19 Responses to Why won’t Washington support Kurdish Independence?
  1. Suleiyman
    May 10, 2013 | 01:59

    The West is not willing to see new leadership and that’s the truth. Fear of the unknown is the main reason behind that. Are you willing to accept a new president in Kurdistan that is pro Islamist? That’s my question for Mr Rubin. The second point is: the opposition has not demonstrated enough maturity yet to be able to go against the 2 major parties. The way I see it Barzani will get another term then change the constitution to where prime minister in Kurdistan is main power then major conflict will arise between Barzanis son and son in law. As for Qubaf Barzani he is a very minor personality now due to the weak place PUK holds to start with. Qubad has some charisma but lacks meaningful on field work in Kurdustan.

    • Ari Ali
      May 10, 2013 | 20:20

      ”Are you willing to accept a new president in Kurdistan that is pro Islamist?”

      Of course YES as far as it is via ballots as clearly evident in Tunisia and Egypt . Islamists/non jihadists who seek power are far more easily tamed than GONE OUT OF CONTROL FAMILIES e.g. Saddam Qaddafi Assad .

    • Shwan Hawezi
      May 12, 2013 | 01:47

      Barzani should change the constitution to monarchism in which he can crown himself as the king after his third term is finished. Even then we Kurds will be better off.

  2. Soran
    May 10, 2013 | 06:55

    As a Kurd I agree with his points. But, I think US support for Kurdish not related such heavily with Kurdish internal issues. Kurdish question is bigger than US

  3. Lorenzo Garcia
    May 10, 2013 | 09:58

    Nepotism and corruption is a plague allover in the Middle East, specially in Baghdad and at a large extend in Kurdistan.
    Despite of all those flaws in the kurdish nation I am very optimistic about the future of Kurdistan as long as they keep the priests outside politic and the build up of a school system which will feed the much needed middle class and phase out the old guard of mountain fighters who did so much for Kurdistan of yesterday and has limited value for the Kurdistan of tomorrow.
    Education, education and more education will be the main pillar of democracy and best weapon in the coming war against corruption and nepotism.
    Law compliance is very weak in Kurdistan and the legacy of an Iraqui political immunity is a disgrace.
    The kurdish law should be the same for all no matter if Barzanis or Talibanis.
    And still, we should recognize what these people have done for Kurdistan in the days of hardship.
    The benchmarking against Baghdad is impressive and that should be recognized (but still the bottle is half empty of half full?)

    • Khedir
      May 12, 2013 | 18:19

      I agree with you…

  4. Suleiyman
    May 11, 2013 | 01:52

    The reason I asked that question was to point out the hypocrisy of some western thinkers who choose to close their eyes on dictatorship until it no longer serves their own interests. How many of those same democracy lovers were calling for the overthrowing of Saddam when he was killing his people in the 1980s while also fighting Iran? In fact he was a hero to many of them.
    There are some of those hypocrites who fly back and forth between USA/Europe and many oppressing regimes offering advise on how to remain in power and continue their legacy. Who do you think kept Mubarak, Gadhafi, Saddam, Bin Ali, and even some of the South American dictators high in power all these years? Once their lines are cut, they come back and lecture to people on democracy.

  5. William Lees
    May 11, 2013 | 22:52

    From the left writing about his great knowledge of all things Kurdistan Joel Wing.Although he is in Oakland California he is a go to source for newsprint.
    From the right,another blindly biased opinion from Michael Rubin,tool of the PNAC.His office at AIPAC and insistence,stiil,of nukes in Iraq says it all.In the present American State department we have the Keystone Cops

    • Harry
      April 6, 2014 | 05:05

      Very valid point on the current incompetents in the State Department, although probably not less incompetent than the Clinton State Department. Samantha Powers and Susan Rice are worth mentioning as they top the list of incompetents. One only need to look at the situation in Crimea to see the full display of a State Department that has been asleep at the wheel for quite sometime.
      2016 will most likely bring a more conservative President to the White House, and in turn, to the State Department. This will be the golden moment for the formation of an independent Kurdish state.

  6. Kamal
    May 12, 2013 | 04:25

    This is a very nice article. I have few objections. But, I mostly agree and yes I believe so we as Kurds have lots lots of academic and technocratic people. But, closed minds, dumps and stupids on power so far !

  7. Suleiyman
    May 12, 2013 | 04:42

    It will be sad if Barzani remains the president for another term, and it will happen mainly because there are enough mislead people with personal interests who choose to remain blind and accept injustice in the name of national security or political affiliation. As a matter of fact, these cowardly people will never be able to give an opinion on the matter once it becomes so obvious as a scandal and will choose to remain deaf and blind. It’s amazing to see educated people in the west still fall for these backward ways of thinking. It really is sad.

  8. sabah
    May 12, 2013 | 10:57

    ئەگەرچی لەگەڵ سەرجەمی لێکدانەوەکانی مایکڵ رۆبیندا یەکناگرمەوە، بەلام دەبین کە ئەو دڵسۆزانە دەستی بۆ خاڵی گرنگ، بێ سەرکردەی کورد راکێشاوە.
    وشەی سەرکردە، لە وشەی سەر و کردە، کە کار و بیرە بێکهاتووە و وەک دەستەواژە لەلایەن باپیرە جووتیارەکانەوە داهێنراوە. لە ئیستا لە جێگەی مانای سەرکردەم سەربردەی بە فەرمان رەوای پارتەکان نا نەتەوایی و نا نەوانە حوکمی مرۆڤ دەکەن.
    گرفتی مرۆڤی کورد لە بێزمانی کار و بیریدایەو ئەو دەردەش لە نابەروەردەی نەوە وەک سەرکرد، لەلایەن دایک و باوک و ئینجا ماموستای دین و دنیا و دوای سیاسی نابەرپەرسیارەوە شێوێنراوە. ئەگەرنا زمانی کورد پر بە مانا، مانا بە مرۆڤ سەرکردانە داوە. لەوەش زیاتر، بیر لە وشەی موغ لە گیاندا وەک کار و بیرکردنەوەکەی بکەرەوە، تا لەو مانایە بەگەیت کە بۆ سەرکردە وەک مرۆڤ دانراوە. موغ لە گیاندا وەک ئەنجمومەن کار دەکات ، نەک وەک دەماغکەر کە دزە، کار لە سەر خۆ هەڵخەڵاتاند و هەڵخەڵەتندی بەرامبەر دەکات.
    زمانەکەت بەو مانایە مانای بە چ مرۆڤی تۆ داوە. پرسیارەکە ئەوەیە، تۆ چۆن مانا بە کار و بیری مرۆڤیت کولتوریانە دەدەیتەوە.

  9. Alan Hali
    May 12, 2013 | 18:36

    First Michael Rubin must know that in Kurdistan there are some political parties who have affiliation for the outsiders. When some Westerners come and talk about Kurdistan they think Kurds are like and westerners they have passed all the levels which Europe or America has gone through. We Kurds never had a monarchy which a king rules all the Kurdish people. We have never went across that path. We are the victim of the Iranian, Arab, Ottoman, and last the European imperialism. Also, the religion of Islam made Kurds always connect themselves with the Muslim world which unfortunately they were and still are the main reason of their oppression. When Michael Rubin talks about the Family Rule in Kurdistan he must know Kurds were among few middle eastern nations who asked for the democracy and the Barzani Family with Qazy Muhammad created two democratic political parties. They made Kurds leave the tribal affiliation and stay in one political party. MIchael Rubin also must know now and even in the future the Democracy which will be practiced in Kurdistan will be different than anywhere in the world even the European countries are different in term of parctising democracy. I agree with him when he says Kurds don’t have a strong representative in the United States. What I don’t agree with him is when he says that after 20 years of autonomy they don’t have enough and strong politicians. And he talks about college graduates. He must know that if there was no Kurdish support for Americans which are the only true friends of them in Iraq what will happen the only place you Americans should be proud of is Kurditsan.

  10. Jonathan Dworkin
    May 18, 2013 | 09:12

    Michael, do you think the American government would support Kurdish independence if the KDP and PUK ended nepotism? Aside from the fact that we’ve made little progress on that front ourselves (see the Bush and Clinton families), there’s the matter of power and influence in Baghdad. The Barzanis and Talabanis are crucial American allies in the Iraqi state. In other words, they are counterweights to Iranian-influenced Shiites, Baathists, and various Sunni Islamic groups. That counterweight I fear is more valuable in the eyes of State Department officials than the prospect of an independent and democratic Kurdistan.

    I think that’s the wrong set of priorities, and I suspect you do too, but that is the consideration that is driving American policy.

    • Ari Ali
      May 19, 2013 | 17:31

      Kleptocracy, is a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population, often without pretense of honest service. This type of government corruption is often achieved by the embezzlement of state funds.

      Your allies in kurdistan are thieves !

  11. Jamal Ameen
    June 13, 2013 | 16:21

    Hello Michael
    I think the stronger reason is the bigger bite that USA is after. They worry about losing support “that they do not have” from the Arab and other countries neighbouring Kurdistan. By the same argument that you have put, the US should have never supported many countries not only worldwide but even in the region.

  12. Kovan
    June 25, 2013 | 03:43

    The first thing we as kurds need to do is unite every kurd and putting all kurds under 1 umbrela. We dont need PKK ruling the north, kurds who self rule in syria, and the rest of kurdistan under Barzanis rule. All kurdish owned territory ( or what we think is ours ) under 1 rule-under 1 president/rules-under 1 military force. If the PKK joined the Kurdish army then kurdistan would be even more secure because war with turkey will be over-PKK have great numbers and are highly skilled fighters. Such a military would ensure a bigger barrier for any foriegn army that tried to enter kurdish territory. What we need is 1st-get all kurds under 1 government. 2cnd-get rid of all poverty in kurdistan. 3rd-Increase our national armys size/equipment/potential. 4th-Get warm with as many countries as we can to promote besnuiss opurtunities, prevent future wars, incase of war we would have more allies,and more countries would support the independce of the kurdish people and the creation of kurdistan. 5th-promote education,order, and law to create wealthy and smart kurdish individuals. If we do not unite as 1,Kurdistan is more likely to enter civil war for which party rules kurdistan, proving to other countries we are not able to create a stable country. Kurdistan is getting better by the day, but we still have a lot 2 do. I am only 14 and i hope when i grow up i am a key character in the fight for kurdistan to become a great country

  13. Harry
    April 6, 2014 | 04:58

    I think now we are now seeing the right set of circumstances for an independent Kurdish state to emerge. With Syria in shambles, a strong Kurdish province in Iraq, and a Turkey controlled by an Islamist AKP Party that does not embrace Western values, the time is right. I hope the Kurds continue to reach out to Washington. The West could certainly use this strong ally in the region to keep Iran and Russia in check.

    July 28, 2014 | 02:28

    yes to independence for kurdistan

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