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How did the Kurds get Washington so wrong?

By Michael Rubin
Source: https://www.aei.org/publication/how-did-the-kurds-get-washington-so-wrong/

A week ago, Iraqi Kurdistan had an independence referendum in which Kurds, as expected, voted overwhelmingly for independence, albeit with a bit less enthusiasm than they had a decade ago. Despite Kurdish leaders’ citations of principles like freedom and liberty, the United States government came down roundly against the Kurdish move. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, called the referendum “illegitimate.” With the Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian governments beginning to retaliate against the Kurdish Regional Government economically and perhaps through other means, the Kurds feel abandoned.

Put aside discussion about the suspension of international flights into Iraqi Kurdistan, control of Iraqi Kurdistan’s international border posts, the possibility that Turkey will block Kurdish oil exports, or that Iran’s Qods Force might act even more violently. A broader question Kurds must confront at this time of diplomatic crisis is how the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi Kurds so wrongly gauged the mood in Washington, DC.

In the run-up to the referendum, there was no shortage of warnings from the Trump administration that Iraqi Kurds would not enjoy US government support. The White House, State Department, and Defense Department each issued separate statements urging Iraqi Kurdistan to postpone or scrap the referendum. Behind the scenes, the Central Intelligence Agency also expressed frustration with their Iraqi Kurdish interlocutors. And yet, Kurdish leaders repeatedly told Kurds and Kurdish journalists that the statements opposing the referendum were pro forma and that, behind the scenes, they had guarantees of American support. That was wishful thinking at best and, at worst, an outright lie. How was such a disconnect possible? With so many millions of dollars spent lobbying, how could the Kurdish leadership and representatives get so much wrong about Americana policy?

Authorities in Erbil should not simply blame the Trump administration. For all the partisan discord in Washington, it is doubtful a Clinton administration would have behaved much differently. To understand the failure of the Kurdish assessment of American politics, it is necessary for Kurds to be introspective about the way in which they approach Americans and conduct diplomacy.

There are a three main reasons for the KRG misread of Washington:

The first reason is KRG political culture. Too often the Kurdish leadership and its representatives dismiss the possibility of honest motivation behind disagreement. Perhaps mirror imaging, they attribute malevolence to opposition and dismiss critical voices as on the payrolls of their enemies. In addition, Kurdish leaders falsely conflate criticism of their own political figures with criticism of Iraqi Kurdistan more broadly. However, Kurdistan is not Barzani nor Barzani Kurdistan. Kurdish officials must not fall into a trap by which interlocutors either agree with them completely or are branded enemies, not worthy of discussion or debate. Blacklists such as those maintained by Kurdish authorities in Erbil, their representative offices abroad (and acknowledged by Kurdish diplomats), and both public and nominally private universities across the region signal a lack of confidence and, frankly, a lack of professionalism. Such blacklists are a practice common among dictatorships, not democracies, and they neither reflect well on those abiding by them nor do they benefit them as an ever-narrowing pool of contacts handicaps Erbil’s ability to get its message out to its most important audience — those who might disagree with the Kurdish leadership but be open to a debate.

The second reason rests upon those on whom the Kurdish Regional Government relies. Many of the KRG’s chief interlocutors are either paid directly by the KRG or do business with it, its major political parties, or influential politicians. Whether consciously or unconsciously, those with material interests in Iraqi Kurdistan tell Kurdish authorities what they want to hear, if only to maintain their access. Others will seek to ingratiate themselves by attacking peers whom the KRG dislikes. Some American think tanks, especially those soliciting or receiving donations from the KRG, have even gone so far as to allow Kurdish representatives to scrub invitation or audience lists so as to prevent critical questions from being asked in the presence of de facto Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. The KRG likewise sought to micromanage the composition of various study groups so as to pre-determine the outcome. Such action might give the KRG fodder for an occasional laudatory headline, but it undercuts their interests in the long-term by convincing themselves that occasional praise represents consensus opinion.

The third reason is provincialism and compartmentalization. Experts who visit Erbil but not Baghdad or vice versa will have no way to balance perspectives or fact check what one side says about the other. When Kurds argue that their roll in countering the Islamic State or hosting those displaced by the conflict mandates a blank diplomatic check, they ignore that the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias have similar records. Forces loyal to both Baghdad and Erbil failed against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s rise, but both rallied admirably and at great cost eventually to beat the group back. The same parallel narratives exist with regard to refugees. Indeed, many of those forced to flee the Islamic State say they are treated better in Najaf and Karbala than in Erbil and Sulaymani. It may be possible to sway official US opinion, but to do so it will first be necessary to cease arguments that call on Americans to abandon Baghdad or which engage in magical thinking about how Kurdish independence will solve all the problems of the region. Simply demonizing Baghdad and thinly-veiled racist attacks on Shi’ites do not advance the Kurdish position.

Kurds may one day fulfill their nationalist aspirations, and the dreams of those who voted for independence might be realized. But, if they expect US support, rather than ignore or demonize contrary arguments, they must engage them. KRG arguments must be strong and persistent enough to win over independents and cynics, not simply those who have a material interest in Kurdish independence. Simply put, the KRG and its most ardent supporters have failed in Washington because they trapped themselves in a self-reinforcing bubble. Whether they can break out of it remains to be seen.