American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.
That said, the region was never democratic—the freest and fairest election it had was in 1992—and then the leaders simply massaged the process in order to maintain their hold. Regional President Masud Barzani, for example, is officially limited to two terms by the constitution, but got around the problem by extending his second term extra-legally. Simply put, today, Iraqi Kurdistan is a dictatorship.
The two ruling families dominate politics and society. Masud Barzani is president and lives in a palace complex in a resort inherited from Saddam Hussein. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. His uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, was Iraq’s foreign minister and is now finance minister. Masud’s eldest son, Masrour Barzani, leads the intelligence service; and his second son Mansour is a general, as is Masud’s brother Wajy. Barzani’s nephew Sirwan owns the regional cell phone company which, while purchased with public money, remains a private holding. Barzani’s sons are frequently in Washington D.C. They have their wives give birth in Sibley Hospital in order to ensure the next generation has American citizenship, and Masrour Barzani acquired an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. Hanging out in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, some of Masoud Barzani’s daughters-in-law have, according to Kurdish circles, been known to introduce themselves as “Princesses of Kurdistan” as they visit high-end shops accompanied by their own rather unnecessary (while in the United States) security details.
(Barzani isn’t the only family dynasty, just the most important one. Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad runs a number of media outlets, “non-governmental organizations,” and maintains a stranglehold over the finances of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party Talabani founded. She calls the shots for her son Qubad, whom she maneuvered into the deputy premiership. Lahur Talabani, the former president’s nephew, is head of his party’s counter-terrorism unit. President Talabani, when deciding who from his party should join him in Baghdad, appointed his brother-in-law Latif Rashid to be a minister.)
Family means everything in Kurdistan. When Masud Barzani met with President Obama several years ago at the White House, he brought with him Masrour and nephew Nechirvan even though the latter at the time was out of office and without any governmental role. Barham Salih, the serving prime minister, stayed home. Barham simply didn’t come from the right family. The Barzani Charity Foundation has “urged” other non-governmental organizations not to compete in certain sectors, or face the consequences. Meanwhile, its funds—Kurdish NGO workers and journalist say—go as much toward private jets and six-figure salaries as they do to assistance.
Masud Barzani is a dictator. As Islamist terrorists rage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Barzani remains calm to that supposed provocation. But when Sardasht Osman, a young Kurdish journalist, penned a relatively innocent poem highlighting how his life and fortunes would change if he married Barzani’s daughter—a subtle and sophisticated poke at the region’s nepotism and corruption—Barzani’s security service led by son Masrour apparently kidnapped and executed him. Family trumps everything.
For policymakers and businessmen in the United States or Europe who seek only stability and do not prioritize democracy, that may be fine. After all, aside from Israel and perhaps now Tunisia, the Middle East isn’t known for democracy. That stability, however, is on the verge of breaking down and, ironically, the reason is family.
Masud Barzani is nearing 70 years old. Like many Middle Eastern potentates, he is carefully considering his succession. While many in the West assume that Nechirvan Barzani, on paper the second-most powerful Kurdish figure, would be next in line, Masud has apparently decided to cast his lot with son Masrour. There have been subtle personnel changes and alterations in portfolios in recent years as Masrour has consolidated power. Take the case of Karim Sinjari: In theory the interior minister answering to Nechirvan Barzani, Sinjari has seen Masrour encroach on his power and portfolio in recent years. Whereas Sinjari once was responsible for the region’s impressive security, today Sinjari’s title may be the same but he holds sway over little more than local and traffic police forces.
The result of the power struggle matters. Both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani would be corrupt by any American standard. Certainly, that’s a more difficult call by Iraqi and Kurdish law which doesn’t define business and political conflicts of interest in the same way. Still, both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds. That said, while Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, it is in the Tammany Hall sense: his machine may be shady at times, but it delivers not only to his immediate inner circle but to the public at large. Nechirvan is skilled, works with both supporters and opposition, and is generally popular. He does not exaggerate his academic or military prowess; he is self-confident enough to know that he need not bother, and that the general public sees through and privately jokes about embellishments. Nechirvan also knows that it is far better to co-opt or ignore opponents than use force to imprison or kill them.
Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade—the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics in Virginia and Vienna, and the murder of journalists seem to rest at Masrour’s feet.
The problem may be generational: The Barzanis are much like the Saudis. Both Masud Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, were tribal leaders. Even at the height of their power, they remained close to the people. With every generation, however, the Saudis and Barzanis grew more isolated. Masud understands why his father was popular and may genuinely desire to be the same sort of leader, but he has allowed a huge distance—both literal and figurative—to develop between himself and the people he supposedly represents. He does not mix and mingle. The newest generation, however, has no real memory of their grandfather, and so has a very limited sense of the responsibility they inherit. They were born to power and see it as an entitlement. If Masoud Barzani’s grandsons enter the Erbil airport or any other government complex, scores of servants will bow and genuflect toward them. Grow up with endless servants and grown men singing your praises, little discipline and a sense that rules and the law are beneath you, and the same sort of perverse morality and mindset that afflicted Saddam Hussein’s sons and Muammar Gaddafi’s children can take root. Whereas Nechirvan uses power with nuance and still seeks to deliver, Masrour can simply be cruel. Human-rights monitors say that businessmen who do not pay him kickbacks are imprisoned, and journalists who write critically of him or his father disappear. He is quick to threaten, and seldom delivers. Nechirvan is smart; Masrour is not. Prior to the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul, for example, Nechirvan understood the danger they posed; Masrour was too clever by half and apparently thought he could use them against political enemies.
Various people have tried to warn Masud about his sons’ behavior. In the past, Barzani supporters would say that Masud was simply unaware of their antics. Seldom does anyone hear such excuses anymore. Kurdish officials—and even Barzani family members—whisper that, like Saddam Hussein, Barzani is aware of the excesses and behavior of his sons but simply does not care. Family trumps Kurdistan, let alone democracy.
What does this mean for the United States? Privately, both diplomats and intelligence circles seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour-Nechirvan split and, if it is not too strong a term, the psychopathic trends within Masrour’s behavior. They have expressed their displeasure by withdrawing diplomatic etiquette and searching Masrour and his delegation at Dulles airport, but there is a limit to what American officials are willing to do. That said, post-Masud Kurdistan—and potentially U.S.-Kurdish relations—will be far different with Masrour predominant than with Nechirvan in charge. The question for U.S. policymakers and perhaps the intelligence community as well is whether they are content to watch a slow-motion train wreck or whether leverage exists to prevent worst-case scenarios from developing. What they should under no circumstances take for granted is security in Kurdistan. Leadership matters.
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Be Very Worried About Barzani Family Power Struggle
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And it long predates Trump.
The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.
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Trading sanity for energy.
Generally speaking, the Trump era has been defined by two contrasting phenomena: Republican disunity leading to occasional episodes of tactical incompetence, and Democratic discipline and reconstruction. When it comes to judicial appointments, however, the parties trade their roles. From non-governmental organizations, to media figures, to Congress and the White House, the right has been united, strategic, and remarkably effective at nominating and confirming originalist judges to federal court appointments. Democrats, meanwhile, have been tactically maladroit, schismatic, and irrational. Owing to their lack of foresight, Democrats are now stripped of the minority privileges that would allow them to effectively oppose Donald Trump’s overqualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Thus, in their impotence, they are left with one option: radicalize their voters.
Since Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, Democrats have preached a variety of implausible doomsday scenarios. The strategy, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wikler told the Associated Press, was to terrify Democratic voters with three messages. “The essential message is Roe,” he said. “The secondary message for most folks is ACA and health care. . . . The third messaging plank is, ‘choose your own adventure.'” Democrats have already plowed through messages one and two with an abandon that suggests these cookie-cutter attacks on any and all conservative justices were not sticking to a nominee as conventional and well-liked as Kavanaugh. And so, by breaking the glass around message three, the Democratic Party has chosen to slither through the left’s most fetid fever swamps.
The latest line of attack goes something like this: Donald Trump selected Kavanaugh not because he served for over a decade on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, has a long record of conservative jurisprudence, and is well-liked and occasionally cited by the Supreme Court’s current justices, for whom many of his former clerks now work. No, he was picked because he is most likely to shield Donald Trump from the legal consequences that might arise from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.
The support for this bizarre claim is found in a 2009 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Minnesota Law Review in which he said that presidents should be protected from indictments while serving in office because “a president who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as president.” He added that the prosecution of a president could undermine the separation of powers in the Constitution. And, after all, the nation’s founding charter already provides Congress with a remedy for “dastardly” presidential behavior in the form of impeachment. His article concluded with a recommendation that Congress, not the judiciary, take measures to ensure that a sitting president is properly protected from prosecution. These sentiments comport with a 1998 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Georgetown Law Review in which he said it is “debatable” as to whether a president can be indicted, and Congress should clarify that debate in law.
This perfectly reasonable opinion is not only consistent with what the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bill Clinton concluded about a sitting president’s immunity, but it also captures Kavanaugh’s belief in the limits of judicial power. But perhaps because Democrats do not share Kavanaugh’s apprehension about executing political imperatives from the bench, they have decided that his Obama-era recommendation amounts to a desire to shield Donald Trump from the law.
“Why did the president stick with Kavanaugh?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked. “Because he’s worried that Mr. Mueller will go to the court and ask that the president be subpoenaed.” Senator Ed Markey, too, said that it is “not a coincidence” that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court given his views on a presidential indictment. Senator Cory Booker concurred. “That should raise enormous red flags,” he wrote. The Democratic Party’s newest star, self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claimed that Kavanaugh’s views on indictment represent “an automatic disqualification” for appointment to the high court.
The activist left’s media ecosystem has taken its cue. “Kavanaugh was the right pick if Trump’s top priority was protecting himself from criminal investigation,” wrote Vox.com’s Ezra Klein. “He can, and he will, shield Trump from grand jury subpoenas, civil suits, and any/all other investigations,” the University of New Hampshire Professor Seth Abramson declared. And so on.
These addlepated expressions of anxiety don’t dwell much on the scenarios that would lead to a clash between the president and the Supreme Court over Mueller’s work because those scenarios do not satisfy the left’s conspiracy theorists. There’s an outside chance that the Court could take up an appeal from Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort if he is convicted on charges of tax and bank fraud, among other offenses. The Court might have to weigh in on whether the president can decline a subpoena or a request for a deposition by the Mueller probe, but this is not untrodden ground. Some have even dredged up a theory promulgated by the likes of Roger Stone that the Supreme Court can be goaded into ordering the dissolution of the special counsel’s office.
In reality, Kavanaugh’s writings suggest that Democratic trepidation is entirely misplaced, not that any Democrats will be delighted by the good news. George Mason University law professor and Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin noted that Kavanaugh seems pretty clearly to be saying that “the Constitution by itself doesn’t bar” investigations into the president. “He does not say it is unconstitutional for the president to either be charged with a crime while he’s still in office,” Somin added, “or to be investigated for a civil offense.” Of course, congressional Democrats know perfectly well that Kavanaugh’s argument is an argument about policy, not law. And the number of fair-minded observers calling Democrats out on their opportunism and hypocrisy is approaching critical mass.
And so, the Democrats’ latest choose-your-own-adventure is set to lead readers into another dead-end. But the fevered fantasies that compelled Democrats along on this wild speculation are the same ones that compelled the party to filibuster Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew it would result in the end of the judicial filibuster and the predicament in which Democrats now find themselves. The party is cultivating a fanatical base, but it is sacrificing sanity in the process. That’s a tradeoff Democrats will one day soon regret.
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But the freak-out continues.
As Noah has pointed out, the left has made a fetish of abortion, as though it were a positive good, like the polio vaccine, instead of something that should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the left is now howling that his joining the Supreme Court would mean the end of Roe v. Wade and that “millions of women will die.”
This, of course, is nonsense. For one thing, while Kavanaugh is a practicing Roman Catholic, so is the man he would be replacing, Justice Kennedy. So are Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch was raised Catholic but now attends the Episcopal Church. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Breyer are Jewish. So the religious balance on the court would be unchanged. Adding Kavanaugh and subtracting Kennedy is a wash.
So even if Kavanaugh were gung-ho on overturning Roe, he couldn’t do it without the help of at least four other justices, none of whom seem in any hurry to do so. As recently as 2016, the court struck down, 5-3, a Texas law whose effect would have been to close down many of the state’s abortion clinics.
What the court has been doing is nibbling away at Roe v. Wade, allowing increasing restrictions, but sustaining Roe. This is strikingly reminiscent of the history of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the doctrine of separate but equal when it came to segregated state institutions. Plessy was upheld over and over again for almost the next sixty years, but its scope was almost continuously narrowed. For instance, one Southern state had no law school for black students and paid for them to go out of state to attend law school. The Court ruled that that was not separate but equal and the state had to admit black students to its law school or establish a black law school.
Finally, in 1954, the Warren Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was inherently unequal and overturned Plessy. And Chief Justice Earl Warren, realizing the political uproar that would ensue, was very careful to make sure that the decision in Brown was 9-0. Chief Justice Roberts would undoubtedly be equally careful to have a large majority of the Court on board before overturning Roe v. Wade.
So, until there are, at the very least, seven justices on the Court willing to overturn it, nothing is going to happen to Roe; except, possibly, further nibbling. With two out of three Americans opposed to overturning Roe, that could well be years from now, if ever. Even then, the Court would have to wait until a suitable case came along. The Court accepts only about two percent of the cases appealed to it each year, and it would be very picky about accepting one that would undoubtedly cause a political firestorm.
So while the left is screaming that the sky is falling, the blue dome of heaven, at least as regards Roe v. Wade, remains firmly in place.
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The cult of personality corrupts.
Pro-Trump constituents in the press have a peculiar preoccupation with the president’s conservative critics. Specifically, they’re concerned with the amount of credit Donald Trump receives for his achievements, which presumes those achievements are self-evident. Objective accomplishments—for example, how the Republican Party under Donald Trump has methodically nominated and confirmed originalist judges to federal courts—demand no hectoring from the credit police. Principled conservatives are as happy to heap praise upon Trump for his stewardship of the courts as are #MAGA brigades. It’s only the president’s more dubious feats that raise the hackles of Trump’s enforcers, and for a good reason; they’re not accomplishments at all.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board exemplified the genre on Monday when its members took aim at the “pearl-clutchers among foreign-policy worthies” who, they alleged, stubbornly refuse to “admit” how Donald Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies has yielded tangible and positive results. The Journal uncorked its contempt for students of foreign affairs for failing to say that raising defense budgets among America’s European allies is a product of Trump’s antagonism. This elides the possibility that students of foreign affairs know that they are not. In fact, making this flimsy assertion requires a substantial commitment to forgetting facts that Republicans used to know almost intuitively. Among them that talk is cheap and nations are moved to action not by badgering presidents or institutional utopianism but hard-power realities. And today’s hard-power realities aren’t just unworthy of praise; they’re deeply disturbing.
The Journal editorial noted over half of NATO’s 29 members will soon meet the arbitrary threshold of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024, “compared to four or five in a typical year before 2014.” It is, however, important to make note of precisely what nations met their commitments in 2014: the United States, Great Britain, and Greece. In other words, nations with significant deployments abroad or nations directly threatened by an aggressive neighbor. In 2015, that list expanded to include Estonia and Poland—two countries that were moved to action by the invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory by neighboring Russia. This year, the list will grow still more to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Non-NATO allies like Sweden and neutral parties like Finland are similarly increasing their defense budgets in the second half of this decade. See the pattern forming yet?
It isn’t just the threats metastasizing in the region but politics in America that have compelled prudent Europeans to look to their own affairs. Two consecutive American presidential administrations have now made their preference for retrenchment clear. Barack Obama spent six of his eight years attempting to “pivot to Asia” and spent most of his tenure withdrawing American soldiers and the last armored divisions from European soil until—you guessed it—hard power realities forced him to abandon his vision.
Donald Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of antagonizing American allies through costly and needless hostilities over trade relations, and he has been just as clear about his desire to see forward deployments scaled back. “NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump wrote this week. It’s hard to think of a presidential pronouncement burdened with more historical and strategic ignorance. NATO and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are American constructions that enforce an American-led global order. These are long-lived institutions by historical standards, and they’ve managed to stave off great power conflict of the sort that typified the early 20th century.
The prospect of European rearmament serves American political sensibilities but not America’s strategic interests. Conflicts abroad have a gravitational pull on the world’s only superpower and allowing them to flourish inevitably sets the stage for American involvement. There is no coalition of European allies that can allow the U.S. to outsource its role as lone superpower. That was a lesson Barack Obama learned too late. Those who allow Donald Trump to harbor the delusion that American security is advanced by weakening its allies’ reliance on it as the guarantor of geopolitical stability are giving the president license to make Obama’s mistake.
American lawmakers from both parties have long sought to inculcate in their European counterparts a sense of ownership in their own security. If that sense of obligation has finally arrived, it is due to circumstances that no Republican with a healthy appreciation for America’s global mission could possibly welcome. Republicans used to know that hard power was the ultimate arbiter of geopolitical events and of nations. They used to know that talk—be it of the tough or amicable variety—was worth exactly what you paid for it. They used to know that barrier-free trade produced peace and that rewarding criminal despots for making illusory commitments was a reckless misuse of the presidency. Those are undying principles of statecraft that will survive Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s unfortunate that we cannot say the same of all principles.