On September 25, Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum not only in its recognized territory, but also in ethnically-mixed areas of Iraq to which both it and the Iraqi government have laid claims.
While Kurdish officials repeatedly told their own politicians and Kurdish journalists that they had secret US support, this was nonsense and meant to imply endorsement where none occurred.
In effect, de facto Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani crossed a red-line and now US credibility is at stake.
How did we get to this point and how should the United States respond?
First, the US approach to Barzani has replicated a common mistake in US diplomacy: Subordinating democratic legitimacy to the ease of partnering with a single individual.
Betting on an individual rather than a system seldom works. In the run-up to the Oslo Accords, for example, the State Department sought to work with exiled and increasingly irrelevant Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat rather than seek to work with the grassroots Palestinians who led the first Intifada but did not necessarily speak with a single voice. The logic was simple: It’s easier to negotiate with strongmen, and dictators can better deliver on security and peace.
That the gamble on Arafat failed, however, is obvious. Terrorism increased. While an independent Palestine might this year be celebrating its 17th anniversary, Arafat’s choices steered the Palestinians down the path to chaos in which they remain mired today.
US Special Envoy Brett McGurk essentially made the same bet on Barzani two years ago at the expiration of his legitimate term in office that peace processor Dennis Ross once did on Arafat.
Barzani at the time had a choice to become the region’s Nelson Mandela or its Yasser Arafat. If he chose the former, he could have become a senior statesman and set the Kurdish region down the path to democracy. Alas, he chose the latter.
Alas, Barzani chose to emulate Arafat. While Barzani never engaged in the terrorism that Arafat did, he was corrupt and more interested in personal power than building a responsible, functioning state.
Indeed, when Kurdish leaders cite the oppression they have suffered as a reason for statehood, they often fail to mention that Barzani himself partnered with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein just eight years after Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against the Kurds and disappeared hundreds of Barzani’s own tribesmen.
McGurk, however, appears to have believed that the stability inherent in continuing to deal with Barzani against the backdrop of the military campaign against ISIS trumped recognizing Parliamentary Speaker Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq as the temporary regional leader, as Kurdish law dictated, and encouraging elections.
The reality is that a political transition in Kurdistan might have actually improved the fight against ISIS by enabling the peshmerga to focus on the military rather than political agenda.
Nor are political transitions, even at times of crisis, necessarily bad. After all, the transition from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Haider Abadi in Baghdad enhanced Iraqi effectiveness in the campaign against ISIS.
Alas, McGurk’s willingness to work through Barzani convinced the Kurdish leader that, like Arafat, he was the indispensable man and could act with impunity. Hence, his willingness to so blatantly act counter to US wishes and perhaps Kurdistan’s as well should not surprise.
So what to do?
Frustration with Barzani should not mean punishing the broader Iraqi Kurdish population, but it is essential not to continue business as usual, for to ignore Barzani’s defiance is to forfeit all future diplomatic leverage and credibility.
If Washington’s goal is to prepare Kurdistan for greater autonomy (if not independence) and a peaceful, negotiated divorce from Iraq, then McGurk, US diplomats in Iraq, and senior US officials in Washington should recognize Barzani’s illegitimacy and instead meet exclusively with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Speaker Yusuf, until such a time as Kurds elect a replacement for the term-limited Barzani.
In the run-up to the Kurdish referendum, the Kurds essentially sought to replicate the Mujahadin al-Khalq’s lobbying strategy: Seek high profile endorsements, but always with a quid pro quo .
When advocates like former Ambassadors Peter Galbraith and Zalmay Khalilzad speak on behalf of the referendum and separation, it is reasonable to note their business dealing with the region and its various entities. Likewise, “independent observers” paid for by the Kurdistan Regional Government should be treated no more independently than congressmen paid to advocate on behalf of the legitimacy of dictatorial Kazakhstan’s elections.
In addition, US aid to Kurdistan should be contingent on true unity of the peshmerga . After all, if Shi’ite militias are a concern, so too should be Kurdish militias: Both are organized around personalities and politics rather than the “state,” Kurdistan’s Ministry of Peshmerga notwithstanding.
The same holds true for Kurdistan’s multiple intelligence and security services. Family interests aside, it is time these are unified and professionalized, even if that means the sons and nephews of political party leaders cannot all be in charge.
US officials should recognize the legitimacy of Kurdish grievances against Baghdad, but also note that there are two sides to the story. No one disputes that Kurdistan is due 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue. The question is whether Kurdistan must first fold its own oil and customs revenue into the central kitty and understand that deductions will occur (pipeline rental fees, for example) before the cash is distributed.
As for the disputed territories, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani wrote that “While our allies disagree with our emphasis on a referendum as a first step to independence, this right is enshrined in international law . . .”
If that is the case, the Kurdistan Regional Government must also affirm the rights of its constituent minorities — for example, Yezidis and Christians — to hold their own referenda in disputed territories. While this could lead to an endless fracturing of the region, simply considering the scenario highlights the reason why the disputed territories are so disputed: They are incredibly diverse. Perhaps, then, it is time to revive calls for a special status for Kirkuk separate from the Kurdistan Regional Government, but under the umbrella of a confederal Iraq.
Both Iraq and Kurdistan will always be incredibly diverse, complex places. In such circumstances, it behooves the US and other Western, liberal states to eschew the authoritarian model and insist on real, substantive democracy not only in terms of elections but also with regard to the rule of law.
While both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan may fall short with regard to rule of law, Iraq has advanced ahead of its northern constituent when it comes to a willingness to have peaceful, political transition.
Rectifying that in Kurdistan will be necessary in order to negotiate with Baghdad and to see any serious solution to the current impasse.
Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. He has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.