Is It Time for Obama to Change Course on Iraqi Kurdistan?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 4:59 PM EDT

Jonathan Dworkin, who has spent quite a bit of time in Iraqi Kurdistan, thinks the Obama administration is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq:

In Kurdistan examples are everywhere of the failure of American diplomacy. Refugees have been a problem for months, but only in the last few days has our government gotten serious about providing large scale material support to the Kurds....On the economic front the State Department has gone out of its way to be unhelpful. The Kurdish government is in a desperate economic situation due to the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and the central government’s refusal to share oil revenue.

....The Obama team has adopted Maliki’s line, in essence arguing that Kurdish oil undermines Iraqi unity. That’s an idea that has become increasingly ridiculous with each setback in Baghdad....But the idea of Kurds breaking away from Iraq was anathema to the Obama team....The result is ongoing economic strangulation at precisely the moment the Kurds are being attacked by ISIS. Government salaries haven’t been paid in months. One physician friend in Sulaimania wrote to me that the doctors are working for free. There have also been acute fuel shortages.

Security is the most obvious area where American soft power has failed. For months now the Kurds have been lobbying for a more coordinated approach against ISIS, and they have gotten the cold shoulder over and over. The Obama team was content to arm a disloyal and unreliable Iraqi Army, and they were perplexed when those heavy weapons ended up under ISIS control. But they refused to coordinate significant weapons procurement for the Peshmerga, despite increasingly desperate appeals, until the ISIS rampage forced them to change tack this past week.

I think the highlighted sentence is key. From a diplomatic point of view, the United States either supports a unified Iraq controlled by a central government in Baghdad, or it supports a federal Iraq in which Kurdistan is largely independent. For better or worse, the US made the decision long ago to support a unified Iraq, and that's not a decision that can be reversed lightly. Everything else flows from this.

Is this incompetent? I don't think that's fair. Countries simply can't change tack on major issues like this when their allies are in trouble. And like it or not, Baghdad is our chosen ally. It may be that there's more we could do to quietly help the Kurds behind the scenes, but it's hard to imagine anything serious changing as long as we officially support the authority of the central government in Baghdad over all of Iraq.

In other words, all of the things Jonathan mentions are part of an entirely coherent strategy. Wrong, maybe, but coherent. Rather than commenting on them separately, then, we should be focusing on the bigger picture: Is it finally time for the US to end its opposition to an independent—or semi-independent—Kurdistan? Jonathan made the case for that a couple of months ago here, and I can't say that I forcefully disagree with him. Certainly we ought to be giving this a more public airing. "When we're dropping bombs on a place," Jonathan told me via email, "it should force some conversation about the broader strategy." It's hard to argue with that.

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