A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is truly a humbling experience. Both 13 years ago, when I first visited the region, and now it’s easy to be impressed with all that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. Indeed, Fouad Ajami—who recently spent a couple days in the region—wrote eloquently about his most recent visit, with a paean to policymakers in Washington to side with the Kurds in their dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
I seldom disagree with Ajami, but his praise of Kurdistan seems incongruous with his previous work. In effect, he comes perilously close to embracing dictatorship over democracy, especially coming alongside regional President Masud Barzani’s announcement delaying elections on the curious logic that he need not adhere to his two-term limit if his second term never formally ends.
Ajami is correct to note what an oasis the American University of Iraq-Sulaymani has become, but he ignores the grumbling of many locked outside the gate: AUI-S has taken tens of millions of dollars in Kurdish government funds as public universities in the region are increasingly starved for cash. In effect, AUI-S represents the opposite of Robin Hood: Stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Nor is AUI-S as free from Kurdish politics as some of its students and supporters once hoped.
I was troubled by Ajami’s praise for Stran Abdullah, whom he describes as “one of Kurdistan’s most informed and talented journalists.” Mr. Abdullah may be a good journalist and an honorable man, but it is strange to omit that Abdullah works for Kurdistan Nwe, the official organ of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not an independent newspaper. There is no mention of the dozens of Kurdish reporters working for independent newspapers that face harassment, arrest, and, in some cases, even death. Praising Abdullah exclusively is akin to praising a reporter for Pravda, rather than the stringer for Radio Free Europe.
Regarding Kirkuk, Ajami writes:
Kirkuk alone should suffice to sober up those who rush into the breach—it is a city as rich in oil as it is in political troubles. One doesn’t have to be terribly imaginative to foresee catastrophe in that tinderbox: ethnic cleansing, a Kurdish victory in Kirkuk matched by the eviction of Kurds from the Sunni Arab side of the dividing line.
Kirkuk, however, is thriving. It has been remarkably calm over the past couple years, as Najmaldin Karim, its governor, has shown that politicians who spend the resources allocated to them to the benefit of all communities bring good will, and the resulting local confidence amplifies economic development further. Indeed, Kirkuk has transformed itself from trouble spot to proof that Iraq can work when its leadership does.
Ajami reserves his true animus for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he writes:
The Kurds remain the most pro-American population in this swath of broad Middle Eastern geography. Yet Washington spurns the Kurds as it courts a strongman in Baghdad who has cast his lot with the Iranian theocracy and the Syrian dictatorship. In December 2011, as President Obama boasted of his strategic retreat in the region and of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he held up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq.” Never mind that Mr. Maliki was hard at work intimidating the opposition, consolidating power and warning the Kurds that all oil proceeds must run through Baghdad.
Maliki’s government faces many challenges—and certainly the prime minister is an imperfect man—but Ajami is not being accurate when he characterizes Maliki as a strongman and Barzani as some sort of democrat. If Maliki is a strongman, then he is a curious sort: Maliki governs over an unwieldy cabinet that constantly checks him as he tries to implement his agenda. His picture may hang in a few government offices, but on the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and any other major Iraqi city, it is often absent. Investors enter the Iraqi market without being forced into partnership with Maliki. In the last elections in Baghdad and Basra, Maliki’s man lost out to the opposition and, in both cases, stood down gracefully. Contrast that with the “democrat” Barzani: His photograph is ever present in Kurdistan; he has appointed his nephew prime minister and his son presides over the security services and national security agency, and people quickly find themselves in prison for criticizing the great leader. The last journalist killed in Kurdistan? His crime was questioning Barzani nepotism. U.S. policy should be to pressure for transparent elections not only for Maliki, but also for Barzani. Alas, only Barzani believes that he need no longer bother with public accountability.
As for Iranian influence? The amount of Iranian outreach to both Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan is troubling. The recent summit in Erbil between Barzani and Maliki was not done at the behest of America, but rather on the instructions of Qods Force commander Qasem Suleimani, a man whom Iraqis jokingly refer to as Iran’s “real president.” That said, if Professor Ajami has the opportunity and desire to travel through the entirety of Iraq rather than simply the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Sulaymani and Erbil, he will find that Iranian commerce is much more overt and plentiful in Kurdish Iraq than in southern, Shi’ite Iraq.
The United States should not be indifferent to Kurdish aspirations, but the best possible way to do so would be to confront the reality of Kurdistan’s declining human rights, not pretending it to be Xanadu. And while many of us are and have been friends with prominent Kurdish politicians, it is important to recognize that everyone in Iraq has an agenda, even in Kurdistan.