Is Obama less supportive of Kurdish rights?

One of the common failings among honourable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonourable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them.
~Thomas Sowell

In Baqi Barzani’s most recent column on KurdNet (25 July 2010), Obama’s administration less supportive of Kurdish rights, I believe he mistakenly portrays what is happening today with Washington’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Kurds in northern Iraq. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to put this discussion into some context.

In 1973 Mullah Mustafa Barzani said to Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post: ‘I trust America. America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds.’ But betray the Kurds it did. And did it again. And again.

The relationship between Washington and the Kurds has been an abusive and duplicitous one in which the Kurds are kept at bay and become ‘friends’ only when Washington wants to destabilise the government in Baghdad.

Remember the plan cooked up by Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran in 1972? Their view was that the Kurds were ‘a card to play’ against Iraq and ‘a uniquely useful tool.’ The Kurds were no longer a useful tool after 1975.

What happened in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War? The US urged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam. And then left them to defend against themselves. The creation of the ‘safe haven’ thereafter was the result of worldwide media pressure on the US and Europe. Not as a result of Washington’s interest in protecting the Kurds.

This is a reflection of long-standing US policy in the region and part of global US policy, which looks out for US interests and US interests only. Washington is in the habit of making promises that it does not keep. Why anyone continues to believe them is beyond comprehension.

So Baqi Barzani begins his column by saying that ‘foreign policies and relations can shift with the rise of new administrations to power.’ This is true to some extent, but I believe that with regards to the Middle East, Israel, oil, and the Kurds there is really no change from one administration to the next. There are shifts in nuances to the policies, but forces in place in Washington do an astounding job at keeping the status quo. If they want you to think the policy has changed, they just lie about it.

AP photo by Kevin Frayer, April 2003

Barzani says that George W. Bush ‘will be extolled for generations to come’ and that Bush’s ‘unrelenting support for Kurdish rights in Iraq’ has put him forever into ‘the hearts and minds of myriad Kurds all over the world.’ Please find me something that truly supports the notion of George W. Bush’s ‘unrelenting support’ of the Kurds in Iraq.

Bush and his administration did not invade Iraq because of any love for the Kurds. The plan to remove Saddam was in place before Bush took office. The attacks of 11 September then provided the perfect cover to go ahead with the invasion. Bush has become an accidental hero.

As Quill Lawrence writes, Bush ‘was hoping to send his troops through Turkey and was willing to make a deal with the Turkish government by which they would be able to send up to 60,000 troops of their own into northern Iraq with the invading force. The Kurds were pretty sure that these troops were not going to be friendly to them.’

Does that sound like the plan of someone with Kurdish rights in mind? Thankfully, on 01 March 2003 the Turkish parliament voted to reject the US plan and did not allow US troops through Turkey.

The Kurds then, whose aspirations of greater autonomy were encouraged by Washington, helped US troops gain control of the northern Kurdish regions, fighting side-by-side with coalition forces.

Less than a year later, Paul Bremer, head of the coalition government in Iraq, ‘told Kurdish leaders brusquely…to forget the past US autonomy policy and get with the unity program.’ The need for Kurdish assistance had ended and the US began pushing Kurdish forces back from Mosul and Kirkuk, focusing on the bigger Iraq picture.

Baqi Barzani refers to as the Obama administration being ‘less supportive of Kurdish rights’ than the Bush administration. While I do not appreciate Obama’s relative silence on the issue of the Kurds, I do not see what is happening now as an intentional decrease in support. It is merely an outcome, albeit a disappointing one, of Washington’s policy of Iraqi unity. Just as what happened with the 2003 invasion was an outcome of policy under Bush.

Obama met with Mesoud Barzani (KRG President) in January of this year in Washington, after which the White House released a rather bland statement: ‘the President extended the US’ good offices to help Iraqis move forward in forging a broad political consensus to resolve outstanding disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Government of Iraq, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution and working closely with the UN in these efforts.’

As Marina Ottaway, the Director of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle earlier this month: ‘From the point of view of Washington, the Kurds were useful to the US in the days of Saddam Hussein, but now they make things more complicated with the issue of the contentious region of Kirkuk and indeed tensions along the entire order between Kurdistan and Iraq.’  Hence the meaningless statement from the White House.

The KRG has an impressive lobbying machine in Washington. In fact, it has been placed in the ‘top ten’ in terms of money spent on lobbying firms. Is all that spending getting them anywhere? No amount of money is strong enough to sway US decision-making policy in Iraq on any policy of strategic US national importance. Rather, money spent is to build a ‘special relationship’ between Washington and Hewlêr (Erbil).

To increase their lobbying potential, Baqi Barzani suggests the KRG in DC become friendlier with the ‘neoconservative party, republicans and leaders of Jewish and Zionist Christian communities.’ What?!?! Who are the ones now benefitting from the lucrative oil deals? All the neocons from the former Bush administration. Be careful what you wish for, Baqi. Their track record in the Middle East is dark and dubious.

Barzani continues in his column saying that ‘[m]ost Americans commiserate with the Kurdish national struggle.’ I say that most Americans do not even know who the Kurds are, so how can they ‘commiserate’ with the national struggle? Perhaps of the handful of enlightened Americans who know about the situation, most of them empathise with the Kurds. However, if we are to talk about the US government, I do not feel much empathy emanating from Washington.

Obama is pedalling more of the same old, tired policy. It’s not ‘less supportive’, but rather, just packaged a bit differently.

10 thoughts on “Is Obama less supportive of Kurdish rights?

  1. An excellent analysis, when I personally read Baqi’s article, I knew a few things were incorrect, but you clarified it in the best possible way, Good luck to Kurds, trying to survive in the ME with so many enemies and no friends, they are gonna need it.

  2. Hi Corduene,
    Yes, I think Baqi misstated some things. But what bothered me most, and what prompted me to write a response, was the blatant Bush idolatry. I can appreciate what he did in terms of how the Kurds benefitted. But it was an unintentional, accidental, unforeseen result of a misinformed policy. So don’t go putting him up on some gilded pedestal where he doesn’t belong. I don’t begrudge anyone their respect for Bush, but this was over the top. And if the argument is that Obama is less supportive because Bush was an ‘unrelenting’ supporter of the Kurds, and then you negate the claim that Bush was such a supporter, well, you now have no argument left about Obama.

  3. Exactly, I can’t recall even one time in which Bush specifically talked about and defended the Kurds and their situation and plight they have been in, and as you have clarified it well, all the benefits that Kurds got out of this war was completely unintentional, and I don’t know why he talks so highly of Bush, cause nowadays amongst Kurds in general, the view of Kurds towards the U.S administrations (previous and present ones) have dramatically changed towards becoming more or less hostile.

    Here are links to a couple of articles I recommend you to read:

    – Bush offers to bomb Kurds


    – US interests in the region leave the Kurds forsaken – again


    —–Change hxxp to http—–

  4. Thanks for the links. I remember the incident mentioned in ‘Bush offers to bomb Kurds,’ Gotta love the word choice in the title of that article: ‘offers’, as though it were a kind gesture.

  5. You are welcome friend. Hopefully your article leads to a better understanding that what is happening now is not a matter of Obama-Barzani, but rather a general policy of U.S-Kurds……

  6. A book coming out in a couple months looks as though it focuses on exactly what we’ve been talking about:

    The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945
    Marianna Charountaki
    Routledge Press
    30 Nov 2010

    ‘This book provides a detailed survey and analysis of US-Kurdish relations and their interaction with domestic, regional and global politics. Using the Kurdish issue to explore the nature of the engagement between international powers and weaker non-state entities, the author analyzes the existence of an interactive US relationship with the Kurds.

    Drawing on governmental archives and interviews with political figures both in Northern Iraq and the US, the author places the case study of the Kurds of Iraq within a broader International Relations context. The conceptual framework centres around the inter-relations between both state and non-state actors, while the detailed survey and analysis of US-Kurdish relations, in their interaction with domestic, regional and global politics, forms the empirical core of the study. Stressing the intertwining of domestic and foreign policy as part of the same set of dynamics, the case study explains the emergence of the interactive and institutionalized US relationship with the Kurds of Iraq that has brought about the formation of an undeclared US official Kurdish policy in the post-Saddam era.

    Filling a gap in the literature on US-Kurdish relations as well as the broader topic of International Relations, this book will also be of great interest to those in the areas of Middle Eastern and Kurdish Politics.’

  7. It seems like an excellent book, hopefully it will shed some light on the truth about U.S-Kurd relations.

  8. Americans befriended the Kurds as long as they needed them. Kurds were fooled once again by false US promises, and could take advantage of this historical chance as must. They should have proclaimed their independence and reclaimed Kirkuk and all those disputed territories until a referendum was legally held, determining its final status, just in case if the Arabs refuse or change their mind after the US troops pull out. Most Kurds mark 2003 as liberation day for Iraq. Soon 2003 will be remembered as the 3rd betrayal date.

  9. Anti-American sentiments looming in Kurdistan? If I am not mistaken, the Kurds are suggesting: Returning Kirkuk and Mosul to the Kurds = permission for US permanent military bases. Otherwise, start wrapping up.

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