Politics & Policy

A Kurdish State, Soon

A peshmerga fighter with a Kurdish flag near Kirkuk (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Conservatives should help implement an amended Biden Plan to partition Iraq.

It’s time to dust off the disregarded “Biden Plan” to partition Iraq, but with one key change: a dramatic, warp-speed acceleration of efforts toward the creation of an independent Kurdish state. My friends and former colleagues among the neoconservative leaders whose arguments established the ideological framework for the second Iraq War in the late 1990s are the unlikely voices we need to lead the charge to implement such a modified Biden Plan.

An increase of conservative hawks’ influence on present-day U.S. foreign policy in Iraq should be a natural and expected occurrence. Though it’s easy to forget now, concern over Saddam Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program — as manifested in an open letter to President Bill Clinton, orchestrated by William Kristol, and signed by more than a dozen former and future Bush-administration officials including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in January 1998 — was not the only ideological motivation for those arguing in favor of his removal from power. Guilt over the post–Gulf War U.S. policy mistakes that led to Hussein’s slaughter and persecution of Iraq’s minorities – the Kurds and Marsh Arabs – was an underlying and inherent driver of the movement as well. 

Iraq’s minority populations are again facing a genocidal threat, and this time the Kurds are proving the only force capable of combating it. Kurdish troops are the backbone of support for the increasing numbers of U.S. military advisers and troops working to assist the Yazidis trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar. But they are doing so with unnecessarily limited resources. The Iraqi central government continues its efforts to maintain a complete monopoly on the profits from Kurdish oil sales in U.S. court. And the State Department seems to be siding with the Iraqis by not offering any clear or emphatic statement of opposition to those efforts.

Iraq is broken, and debates about how it came to this point will continue to rage for years to come. Under no scenario does the Obama administration see Iraqi government forces retaking much of the territory in northern Iraq now occupied by the Islamic State. The Kurdish region is now almost wholly cut off from Baghdad and central Iraq. Kurdistan is, in effect, a new, de-facto state, and the partition of Iraq is an immutable but as yet inarticulate fact. Which brings us back to the Biden Plan.

As a first step to the realization of an amended Biden Plan, the Obama administration should immediately order the U.S. Department of Energy to buy all the Kurdish oil for sale around the world, to be held as part of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Such a move would be a clear imprimatur to the global energy market that the 160,000 barrels of Kurdish oil pumping daily through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline have solid provenance, and it would clear the path for the international oil companies. The Iraqi government’s legal suits to block the sale of the Kurdish oil can continue apace, but the most likely result is that Kurdish sovereignty will be recognized before such lengthy litigation is resolved.

Kurdish oil emerging from the Ceyhan port may also give the U.S. and European Union new leverage against Russia. Ceyhan is on the Mediterranean, much closer to the European customers threatened by potential Russian energy sanctions. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has the capacity to pump 1.6 million barrels a day, is close to European refining facilities, and could quickly come online to offset Europe’s 4 million-barrel-a-day reliance on Russian crude.

In the months after the 2003 Iraq invasion, James Hoagland of the Washington Post interviewed then–deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. Speaking of the Kurdish and Marsh Arab victims of Hussein, Wolfowitz said, “We have to be aware that things could go backwards here if we do not put to rest that part of their history.” Things, of course, have gone backwards, and now the U.S. has a narrow window to undo some of the damage and put to rest a sad part of history for some of Iraq’s minorities. It will be ugly, expensive work, some of which can be paid for with the Kurds’ 45 billion barrels in oil reserves, if they can simply be allowed to bring the oil to market.

An unexpected alliance between Vice President Joe Biden and the neoconservative hawks to speed the birth of a Kurdish state would be a validation for both. The Obama administration is desperately in need of some seasoned advice from experts who know Iraq — rise, my friends, rise.  

— Juleanna Glover served as the press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney and as the public-affairs adviser to the first Iraqi ambassadorial representative to the U.S. following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

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