Over the last few days, I’ve been relating news from Iraqi Kurdistan in the run-up to the March 7 election for a few reasons: First, the direction of the region’s development remains a crucial U.S. national security concern. After all, Iraqi Kurdistan is surrounded by countries — Iran, Syria, and Turkey — increasingly hostile to U.S. national interests. Second, it is important to counter former U.S. officials who seek to cash in on their contacts in Iraqi Kurdistan in exchange for their assistant papering over corruption and political abuses.
I’ll admit to two personal reasons as well: First, Masud Barzani’s son and, subsequently, a number of other officials in his and his nephew’s offices threatened me after I first wrote that corruption was a problem in the region. Washington is not Kurdistan (or Yale University); it is a matter of principle, when threatened, to not back down. And, second, while many of my friends and former students are in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), many have also suffered abuses at the hands of the ruling families. Several had their homes seized, for example, by companies controlled by party leaders. Others had family members fired or imprisoned without charge after the KDP. I feel loyalty to my students and a desire to see a democratic Kurdistan flourish; the Iraqi Kurds deserve far more than they have received.
Today, a journalist in the region tells me, the KDP has responded to my recent postings in National Review Online in Hawler, a party newspaper, with the revelation that “Rubin is a Jewish American.” Congratulations, Mr. Barzani. You are a bigot. You could focus your party’s campaign on combating corruption, abuse of power, and nepotism. You could live up to your claims that your Kurdistan is a tolerant place. You could ask why NGO’s such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Sans Frontieres criticize your abuse of the media, restrictions on free speech, and harassment of political opposition – but instead the best the Kurdistan Regional Government can come up with is some rehashed Jewish conspiracy? The PUK got trounced in the last election after mid-level PUK officials resorted to ad hominem and empty attacks against critics and opposition rather than redoubling their efforts to address problems and advocate reforms.
People still respect Masud Barzani, although not as much as his father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani. Masud has presided over an economic boom, and maneuvered Kurdistan through one of the toughest periods in its history. However, he has learned the wrong lessons from the decline of his rival PUK. Rather than recognize the need for reform, Barzani criticizes Talabani for delegating too much power to those outside the family circle, many of whom have now defected to form the Gorran List. That is the wrong lesson. While Barzani will be fine for the next election cycle or two — especially if his militia again interferes in polling places and vote counting — but in the long-term, he is writing his own epitaph.