Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.
The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.
The West should learn from its past love affair with Saddam. Handshakes and feasts do not a democrat make. Journalists who question the region’s corruption or why its leading families operate above the law often wind up hurt or dead (another prominent journalist disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan yesterday). And while much of Iraq prepares for 2013 provincial elections this month, Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 round. Prime Minister Maliki and the administration in Baghdad may have serious flaws, but the true autocrat has always been in Erbil. Maliki’s picture doesn’t grace walls, shops, and schools. Barzani can’t say the same.
Too often, journalists distracted with the glitter of Kurdish hospitality and politicians hoping for a golden parachute have been willing to turn a blind eye, but regional leader Masud Barzani’s latest stunt may be a bridge too far. By law, Barzani is limited to two terms as president. His second term is soon to end. He had his proxies ask opposition parties to acquiesce to a third term, and appears shocked that opposition leaders refused. The law is clear, they said, and Barzani should stand down.
Barzani, who came to Kurdistan penniless after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and subsequent Kurdish uprising, has transformed himself into one of the world’s richest men. A few years ago, his son used a shell company to purchase a veritable chateau in one of Washington D.C.’s ritziest suburbs. Masud appears unwilling to let democracy intrude on transforming Iraqi Kurdistan into his personal fief and gravy train, and Kurds speak openly of how his vision for Iraqi Kurdistan is less as a democracy and more as an emirate or sheikhdom like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Qatar.
Kurds deserve better, and so do Americans. Masud Barzani does not personify Kurds; he personifies only Masud Barzani. The opposition—Noshirwan Mustafa in the Gorran, Kosrat Rasul for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mohammad Faraj in the Kurdistan Islamic Union are all honorable men, as are a host of retired figures who might seek a shot at the top spot. U.S. interests are not at issue and, indeed, by supporting the system over the man, the United States could even increase its influence. Washington has no obligation to bestow legitimacy on a power grab nor should it be the White House’s place to bless dictatorship. All of those who sang Kurdistan’s praises as a democracy emerging from war should also speak up if they are true to their principle. Masud has the choice between becoming a Mandela and becoming an Assad. Unfortunately, he appears to be choosing the latter.