The Future of American and Kurdistan Relations

Stephen DeAngelis

January 11, 2008

Readers of this blog know that I have spent a lot of time establishing business relationships in northern Iraq, which is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). A report by American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Rubin questions whether the KRG will remain a good U.S. ally [“Is Iraqi Kurdistan a Good Ally?“, 7 January 2008]. Those familiar with American think tanks understand that many of them are known for their political leanings. AEI makes no secret of its conservative bent and often hires former Republican administration politicos to work there until they can get another government appointment. The Brookings Institution does the same thing for the Democrats. Rubin is harsh in his criticism of the KRG and what he sees as its slow progress towards democracy.

“On a strictly emotional level, U.S. support for Iraqi Kurdistan makes sense. In the wake of World War I, the Kurds missed their opportunity for statehood when other peoples gained their independence. Today, they remain the largest ethnic group without a country. They have suffered greatly at the hands of others. But while Iraqi Kurdistan has come far, the unreliability of its leadership makes any long-term U.S.-Kurdish alliance unwise. Rather than become a beacon for democracy, the current Iraqi Kurdish leadership appears intent on replicating more autocratic models. Rather than become a regional Nelson Mandela, Iraqi Kurdish president Masud Barzani now charts a course to become a new Yasser Arafat. Despite lofty rhetoric about its suitability as an ally, Iraqi Kurdistan’s actions suggest that it is far from trustworthy.”

I have noted in past posts that the Kurdistan Regional Government is controlled by two wealthy and powerful families, the Barzanis and the Talibanis. I fail to see, however, how likening Masud Barzani to Yasser Arafat makes much sense. The Barzanis and Talibanis are running a country that looks a lot more like a late nineteenth century America than war-torn Palestine. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that wealthy Kurds are acting more like nineteenth century robber barons than businessmen directed by corporate boards. It is naive to expect to find a post-Sarbanes-Oxley environment in a post-conflict state. One of the things that Enterra Solutions® is trying to do in Kurdistan is ensure that its businesses (yes, many of them owned by the Barzanis and Talibanis) operate transparently in accordance with accepted international standards. Inevitably, politics follows economics. If you can get businesses to operate ethically, openly, and successfully, that economic success and transparency will eventually lead to better political governance. Rubin nevertheless does find the state of affairs in Kurdistan surprising.

“The Bush Doctrine makes an alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan seem natural. Transformative diplomacy and democratization have been at the forefront, at least rhetorically, of White House policy. Here, Iraqi Kurdistan might seem a model. Two years before Saddam’s fall, Carole O’Leary, a scholar in residence at the American University Center for Global Peace, described Iraqi Kurdistan as a ‘crucible for democracy and a model for post-Saddam Iraq.’ Sverker Oredsson and Olle Schmidt, respectively a Lund University historian and a Swedish politician, called the Iraqi Kurdistan region ‘a Democratic beacon in the Middle East.’ In 2006, the KRG-run Kurdistan Development Corporation aired television advertisements in the United States describing Iraqi Kurdistan as a ‘practicing democracy for over a decade. While an exaggeration–neither the KDP nor the PUK allow any serious electoral challenge–relative to Saddam’s rule in the rest of the country, the three provinces controlled by Masud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani were far freer. But neither Barzani nor Talabani are democrats.”

Rubin details some of the abuses that have occurred since the Kurds achieved autonomy and he believes that “regional politics have ossified.” Ossification, I would argue, takes a lot longer than a decade or two. If the economic boom currently underway in Kurdistan continues, new players will inevitably arise that can legitimately challenge the Barzanis and the Talibanis. Certainly those two families will try to hold on to their influence as long as possible and will use their positions and wealth to do so. But power will inevitably be diluted as the economy grows. Affluent societies chafe under undemocratic systems (a lesson Chinese leaders are learning quickly). Are there abuses? Certainly. Rubin does a fine job detailing what he sees as the worst of them. He doesn’t, however, do a fine job of pointing out how much of the Barzani’s wealth is actually being used to create jobs, foster development, and build infrastructure. To be honest, the models the Barzanis and Talibanis are seeking to emulate are Singapore and Dubai not the United States. To achieve that goal, they are spending money to support the implementation of best business practices, good corporate governance, and transparency. When these are successfully ingrained in the economy, they will foster a better business environment and help produce sustainable middle and entrepreneurial classes. Ultimately, these classes will bristle under any kind of oligarchic rule. My point is that it is too soon to determine the eventual state of affairs in any part of Iraq, including Kurdistan. Having said that, I also believe it is imperative to try and remove systemic abuses as quickly as possible. Watchdogs, such as Rubin, play an important role in that regard. Another thing Rubin worries about is that abuses committed by the KRG could be seen as having U.S. sanction since U.S. support has propped up the KRG. He fears such perceptions could turn the pro-U.S. feelings found in Kurdistan into negative ones.

“Iraqi Kurdistan may not be the beacon for democracy that its representatives claim, but realists within the U.S. foreign policy establishment may argue that its practices toward its population are immaterial to U.S. interests, especially given the Kurdistan region’s continued pro-Americanism. Such a calculation is shortsighted. Because the U.S. government has subsidized both Kurdish leaders, Kurds generally associate their leaders’ misbehavior with U.S. policy. Murmurs of discontent grow when Kurds attribute the abuses by their leaders to U.S. interests: in 2006, for example, when the U.S. government requested space for offices in Sulaymaniyah, Talabani evicted a technical college without advance notice, let alone due process, angering a broad swath of the population. Kurds also accuse U.S. officials of complicity in torture at what they suspect is a center for rendition at a Saddam-era facility between Tasluja and Paramagrun. While Kurdish officials trumpet their public’s pro-American outlook, such an orientation is fading fast. Anti-Americanism has taken hold within Iraqi Kurdistan. Not recognizing it now and taking measures to correct it will negatively impact U.S. strategic opportunities down the line. Perhaps U.S. strategists might forgive this if the Iraqi Kurds demonstrated that they would advance U.S. regional interests. Unfortunately, they have not. While Iraqi Kurdistan did allow U.S. forces to assemble and joined the drive southward in April 2003, filling the vacuum left by the collapsing Iraqi army, subsequent Kurdish behavior leaves large questions about the reliability of Iraqi Kurdistan as a U.S. ally.”

Although I don’t want to comment on the specifics of Rubin’s arguments, I’ll state the obvious. All governments act in what they perceive as their own best interests. Whether the KRG has always made the correct decisions about supporting U.S. objectives in the region is certainly arguable, they surely understand that it is better to have the U.S. as a friend than as an enemy. Rubin argues, and I agree, that the long-term interests of Kurdistan’s ruling families are best served by eliminating corruption and fostering good governance. It is something for which I have argued whenever I discuss Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach. Rubin concludes that historically the longer that ruling families remain in power the more corrupt they become and such corruption eventually undermines their own best interests.

“The history of the Barzani family’s relationship to the population it seeks to lead parallels the generational evolution of Saud rule in Saudi Arabia: both Mullah Mustafa Barzani (1903-79) and King Abdul Aziz bin Saud (1876-1953) remained close to the tribal values of their society and were genuinely revered. Every generation, however, grew more isolated and corrupt. While Barzani tells investors of his plans to transform the region into a new Dubai, he does not understand that his administration’s corruption will retard such success. As the gap between the rich and poor increases, and as Barzani and Talabani use mechanisms of control to stifle dissent, Islamist parties will grow more popular–they have already made inroads, if not because of their religious views then because Kurds consider them the only “clean” alternative to the KDP and PUK’s corruption. Many Kurds shy away from the Kurdistan Islamic Union’s religious conservatism, but as the party becomes more popular, its heavy criticism of U.S. policy and its conspiracy theories about U.S. intentions will take deeper root.”

George Washington feared the rise of royalty in America and had the courage to relinquish his power voluntarily. Considering the fact that he probably could have been president for life, it was a truly courageous and visionary move. Power can be blinding and intoxicating. The Barzanis and Talibanis have grand visions for their region of Iraq. To complement their visions, they need to have the wisdom to choose the best path for making those visions a reality. A few sharp criticisms like those offered by Rubin should provide reason enough to reevaluate the path being pursued and the means to get there. No historian would argue that America’s robber barons were “good guys.” Eventually the government had to step in to stop their more vicious business practices. Since the government and the business leaders in Kurdistan are virtually the same, Rubin worries that there are no checks and balances. Good governance (both corporate and political), which includes transparency and good regulation, will go a long ways towards providing some of the checks and balances needed. If Kurdistan is going to become a Singapore in the Middle East, it must foster a trusted business environment. Trust and transparency go hand-in-hand.