Iraq is not a nation. Rather, it is a territory with arbitrary borders, which at this time is contested by three rival governments. In the west, there is the Islamic State, a group of fanatical, genocidal terrorists, committed to the destruction of Western civilization, Eastern civilization, and all those who refuse to submit to their totalitarian-cult rule. In the south, there is the Baghdad regime, controlled by a gaggle of corrupt Shiite Islamist sectarian politicians, tribal leaders, and gangsters allied with and backed by Iran. Finally, in the northeast, there is the de facto Kurdish state, displaying a level of religious tolerance, women’s rights, rule of law, private enterprise, pursuit of economic development, and friendliness toward the United States, Israel, and the West in general that is exemplary in the region.
Question: Which of these three governments should America support?
In fact, not only do the Kurds yield priority of State Department preference to the Iran-allied Baghdad regime, whose continued economic and political domination over the Kurds the administration insists upon, but — in terms of real action, rather than rhetoric — the Obama administration has arguably done more to favor the Islamic State as well.
These appalling realities are illustrated most starkly if one considers the key question of the financial foundation of each of the three governments. A key exportable product of Kurdistan is oil. On the basis of the Baghdad regime’s supposed right to rule all Iraq, it demands that the oil the Kurds produce be handed over to it, for it to sell, after which it will compensate the Kurds with such part of the cash received as it deems appropriate. As a result, the Kurds have been getting very little for their oil. So, rather than remain subject to such theft, the Kurds recently elected to lease some tankers, fill them with their oil, and send it abroad to sell it themselves. However, rather than support such commendable enterprise, or even merely ignore it, the Obama administration has vigorously tried to suppress it, going so far as to threaten sanctions or other legal action against the government of any country that chooses to accept Kurdish oil for sale at its ports.
This insanity needs to stop. The Kurds should get America’s full support, with the interests of the Shiite Baghdad regime considered only insofar as it acts as a useful ally to the Kurds, rather than the reverse. There are many reasons we should give the Kurds our support, but the central one is very simple: They’ve earned it.
There is a moral question here, but also a practical one. It is a central principle of foreign policy that one should reward one’s loyal friends, set aside the interests of the ambivalent, and punish one’s enemies. The Islamic State is clearly our enemy. The Baghdad regime, in bed as it is with our Iranian foes, is at best ambivalent. What about the Kurds?
The Kurds have certainly been our loyal friends. In 1991, when George H. W. Bush called upon them to join our side and rise against Saddam Hussein, they did so. They were then foully betrayed by the first Bush administration, which, putting a stain upon our flag, promptly abandoned them to be massacred by the Baathist dictator’s remaining forces. Nevertheless, despite this outrageous act of fecklessness on our part, in 2003 they rose again in force to help the allies. Indeed, after the British, the 30,000 Kurdish peshmerga fighters who mobilized to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army in the northern part of the country represented the largest and most important supporting force in the American-led coalition. Then, over the following decade, as Shiite and Sunni Arab groups that were engaged in unending murder alternately befriended and backstabbed our forces as the convenience of the moment dictated, the Kurds staunchly remained our friends. Indeed, of the 4,500 American men and women in uniform killed in Iraq over the past decade, virtually none were killed in Kurdistan, or by Kurds elsewhere. On the contrary, many owe their lives to Kurdish rescuers.
There is more. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, a key objective was to create a free country, whose prosperity and decency would serve as a beacon of light in the region, showing to all the benefits of taking an alternative path from fanaticism, hatred, and tyranny. The hopes for such a wonderful outcome proved illusory in the Sunni and Shiite Arab parts of the country, whose inhabitants chose to use the gift of liberty that we provided them to engage in endless murder and mayhem. But in Kurdistan, the gift was not spurned. The dream was not betrayed. Where the Shiite and Sunni Arab factions have sought only to destroy, the Kurds have sought to build. While the Arab fanatics contend to turn the rest of the country into a pile of wreckage, in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, universities are growing, enterprises are blossoming, and gleaming skyscrapers are rising.
America has lost a trillion dollars and over 4,500 lives in Iraq, and the argument can well be made that we don’t have enough to show for it. But we do have one thing, courtesy of the Kurds, and that is Kurdistan, an embryonic nation that is proving, through its actions, that for those who are worthy of it, liberty remains a blessing, not a curse; and therefore the cause that America stands for is not in vain.
So we owe the Kurds, and should support them, but how far? I say all the way into Syria now, and later into Iran. There are 6.5 million Kurds within the borders of the territory of Iraq, 2.2 million in Syria, 7.3 million in Iran, and 13 million in Turkey. Together with several million more in global diaspora they make up a group of over 30 million people, the largest stateless nation in the world. It’s past time they had their own country. Indeed, it is a scandal that the U.S. State Department should lavish so much effort on trying to create yet another Arab state for the 4 million Palestinian Arabs (who could be readily accommodated if any substantial subset of the 23 existing Arab states collectively covering a region of continental size were to act decently and offer them citizenship), while ignoring the plight of the far more numerous and far more deserving Kurds.
In addition to the territory it currently controls, an independent Kurdistan could take territory from Iran, Syria, or Turkey. Iran and Syria are our enemies, and it clearly would be in the American interest for the new republic to liberate the Kurdish regions currently occupied by those hostile dictatorships and unite with them to form a substantial, fiercely American-allied Kurdish state. One part of this program could be readily accomplished, as the Kurds in Syria are already up in arms and forcefully fighting the Islamic State and, together with their brethren in Iraq, could, with adequate American support, readily crush the Islamists and unite the two Kurdish regions. Liberating Iran-occupied Kurdistan could follow and would greatly benefit the United States by providing us with bases from which, if it became necessary, air strikes on the Iranian nuclear program and other installations of interest could be significantly facilitated.
Turkey, however, is not an enemy, but rather a somewhat ambivalent ally, and this poses complications. Because of concerns that an independent Kurdistan might cause problems in its majority-Kurdish southeastern region, Turkey has historically voiced a strong preference that Kurdish independence be prevented. But this is a problem that can be worked on by diplomats. Both sides need to be talked to. For the Kurds, having an independent Kurdistan is an existential imperative. For the Turks, not having one is a preference. But there would be an upside for the Turks as well. The real national-security threat to Turkey comes not from Kurdistan, but from Russia and Iran. So there is a deal to be struck here. The Kurds get their own state, comprising territory now in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and agree to leave Turkish Kurdistan alone. The Turks accept this, agree to treat the Kurds in Turkey better, and form an alliance with the new republic.
In foreign policy, it is sometimes the case that America’s interests conflict with its principles, creating difficult choices for our leaders. But in the current instance, our interests and our principles converge. By enabling a free, independent Kurdistan, we can reward our friends, damage our enemies, strengthen our global position, redeem our nation’s sacrifice in Iraq, and demonstrate to the world the value of the cause for which we stand.
— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.