After the Kurdistan Region’s historic independence referendum on Sep. 25, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “the vote and the results lack legitimacy” and the US would “continue to support a united, federal, democratic, and prosperous Iraq.” As Secretary Tillerson has the immense responsibility of balancing US national interests around the world, the current situation in Kurdistan is just one portion of a global foreign policy strategy. However, the Kurdish referendum should not be viewed as illegitimate, but as a rare opportunity. US policymakers can serve a greater role in this opportunity, but their strategy for the Middle East will only be successful if they learn from the past 100 years of history.
ERRORS OF WORLD WAR I
The United Kingdom’s foreign policy assessment of Iraq post-WWI was that Iraq would never be favorably stable to Britain unless there existed a monarchy possessing an absolute rule of law because the region consisted of too many tribal, ethnic, and religious fault lines that prevented any legitimate forms of governance from existing. This reinforcement of artificial statehood has only exacerbated regional instability because it created an environment in which power is monopolized by the occupying entity of government that advances its agenda over the interests of its diverse population. The defining countercurrent to this that was bleakly neglected in WWI’s final treaties was the Kurdish pursuit of independence.
ERRORS OF THE PERSIAN GULF WAR
The internationally supported consensus on Iraq during Saddam Hussein also failed to address regional instability and the Kurdish opportunity of democracy adequately. In response to domestic acts of aggression post-Persian Gulf War, the US established no-fly zones around areas such as Kurdistan, while the UNSC implemented trade embargos and economic sanctions aimed at weakening Hussein’s regime.
The effects of this were inverse because the no-fly zones allowed Hussein to conserve his military by consolidating it back to Baghdad, while sanctions such as the oil-for-food program further incentivized him to perpetuate conditions of corruption and polarization. Essentially, Hussein was empowered to maintain control over the peripheral oilfields of Iraq without even having to deploy any military.
ERRORS OF THE IRAQ WAR
Kurdish marginalization in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran has also created conditions for significant devolution from a greater movement of Kurdish sovereignty. Despite this factionalism, the defining moment of Kurdish autonomy was in 2005 during the Iraq War when the US supported the drafting of a new Iraqi Constitution that included within it a Kurdish Regional Constitution. Although this created the platform for greater coordination and unification of the Kurdish population we now see today, US foreign policy once again failed because it neglected to wholly acknowledge the inadequacy of a forcefully constructed Iraqi central government.
ERRORS LEADING TO THE ISLAMIC STATE
In 2006, the US Congress created a team of leading foreign policy experts called the Iraq Study Group (ISG). Their ultimate recommendation was to support a centralized government in Baghdad specifically to maintain control over oil revenues while opposing any partition because it would allegedly lead to “mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions.”
The irony here is remarkable because after the US withdrew and transferred power to this newly constructed government, these pitfalls that ISG insisted on avoiding became a reality due to their failure of acknowledging Iraq’s historic causes of instability. ISG broadly advised that if these pitfalls were to occur, US policy should “ameliorate humanitarian consequences, contain the spread of violence, and minimize regional instability.”
This passive-aggressive foreign policy strategy failed to address the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and a regional instability that will continue to affect many generations to come. Real solutions to these problems will require global collective action. However, this should not deter the US from restructuring its Middle East policy in a way that is directly supportive of natural democratic development such as with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
THE PATH FORWARD
A sovereign Kurdistan is not just a display of military might or tactics, but a display of resolve and the acknowledgment of human rights and liberties. Kurdish sovereignty puts into question the history of Western interventions and marginalized populations in the Middle East, the extractive economy of Iraq, the ethics of Russian and Syrian military maneuvers, and the greater socioeconomic dynamics of Middle Eastern institutions. Despite the abundant importance in all of these issues, the greatest variable put into question by a sovereign Kurdistan is the Kurdish people themselves. The KRG has enough ingredients to sustain its own form of democracy and this may very well be the soundest Middle East strategy for the US—a strategy finally built on the lessons of history.
Robert is a graduate student at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service where he is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree in International Policy and Management. He is currently participating in a capstone project under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) where he will be conducting field research in Swaziland to develop recommendations for improving their national energy policies and strategies. Robert is also a US Army combat veteran and has conducted numerous field operations throughout Iraq alongside both the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24, the US Army, the UNDP, or NYU.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany