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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.
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© 2016 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research