U.S. Reticence on Thuggish Repression in Kurdistan

In a recent speech, President Barack Obama provided an overview of the Middle East in which he attempted to put the United States on the side of democracy and peace. After prior American policy in the region, people in the region can be excused for shaking their heads at the usual U.S. government hypocrisy.

After avidly supporting and aiding Egyptian and Tunisian dictators for years, the U.S. switched sides at the last minute when it believed the opposition would overthrow them. An even more dramatic change occurred in Libya, where the U.S.-led West recently had made nice with Col. Muammar Qaddafi, getting him to give up his nuclear weapons program and training his military, only to begin bombing him when internal opposition arose. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has pulled its punches on supporting democracy, because the overthrow of these autocratic regimes is not in line with perceived U.S interests. And totally ignored has been the U.S.-backed authoritarian and corrupt Kurdish regional government’s brutal repression of protests in "democratic" Iraq.

Rather than focusing on jump-starting the long dead Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians – which, since the end of the Cold War, has affected the U.S. domestic political landscape more than it has U.S. security – Obama should pay more attention to instability in Kurdistan. The instability in Kurdistan would also have little effect on U.S. national security if it weren’t for the continued presence of about 50,000 troops in Iraq until at least the end of the year – and likely much longer.

Taking their inspiration from the overthrow of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of protesters regularly came to Sulaimaniya’s central square for more than two months, railing against the venal, oppressive, and collusive two-party rule in Kurdistan. That is, until the demonstrations were ruthlessly snuffed out by Kurdish security forces in April. Much like the demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters wanted the resignations of senior government officials, a temporary government, and fresh elections. The demonstrators were shot at, detained, or are now in hiding.

According to the New York Times, a leader of one of the two parties governing Kurdistan – Airy Hirseen of the Kurdistan Democratic Party – said the Americans did not pressure the Kurdish authorities to stop their vicious crackdown, which has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In fact, a number of witnesses said that they spotted an American military officer in the square during the protests. That presence and no U.S. embassy statement condemning the harsh government crackdown spread the view among protesters that the U.S. looked the other way during the repression (as it did in Bahrain).

The United States should see warning signs in the instability in Kurdistan, long the most tranquil spot in a strife-torn Iraq. Despite its corruption and oppressive rule, the Kurdish regional government has long had a good reputation with the American government and public – but only because that government was providing relative stability in one small part of a country in violent chaos. In addition, that Kurdish government has behaved aggressively on the issue of oil-laden Kirkuk – desired by the Kurds, the Turkmen, and Sunni Arabs. If the civil war in Iraq ramps up again, Kirkuk could light the match.

The United States should take Kurdish instability as a warning sign and resist the temptation to keep U.S. troops in Iraq longer than the date for their scheduled withdrawal at the end of the year, should the Iraqi central government ask them to remain. If the most stable part of an ethno-sectarian tinderbox may be unraveling, it could be a sign that U.S. forces could be engulfed again in a reignited Iraqi civil war. Unfortunately, given the usual interventionist bent in U.S. foreign policy, the American reaction may be the opposite – using any instability in Kurdistan to pressure the Iraqi government to ask U.S. forces to remain. After all, the U.S. government wants all the military bases it can get to keep a finger on Persian Gulf oil. Despite Obama’s campaign pledge to get the U.S. out of Iraq, the United States is not out of the mire yet.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.