Superficially, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s representation and influence in America has never been greater. After years of renting space in various office buildings, the KRG now has its own building less than two kilometers from the White House. Whereas once Kurds were largely forgotten in Washington, today a Kurdish Caucus in Congress counts nearly three dozen members. When I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, there were perhaps three non-Kurdish Americans in the area; today, that figure has increased by several orders of magnitude. Few who return from Kurdistan are not struck by the region’s energy, the warmth of the Kurdish people, and empathy for the Kurdish narrative. Kurdistan enjoys huge sympathy in the United States.
But appearances can be deceptive. The metrics by which the KRG judges its influence inflate reality. The KRG increasingly seems to mimic Turkey’s diplomatic outreach, ironic both because of the history of Turks and Kurds, and because no country in recent memory has so rapidly hemorrhaged diplomatic credibility and influence in Washington as has Turkey.
What does the KRG do wrong? First, the KRG representation overemphasizes the importance of a Congressional caucus. Kurdistan has a good story, and congressmen are happy to sign onto a caucus. But the caucus is only symbolic. Namık Tan, between 2010-2014 Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, used Turkey caucus membership numbers as a metric to gauge Turkish diplomatic success, but caucus size was irrelevant to the true state of relations which plummeted under Tan’s tenure. For Congressmen, caucuses are opportunities for travel but they are low-hanging fruit, easily forgotten or dispensed with when associations embarrass. Essentially, the millions of dollars invested in both the Turkish and Kurdish caucuses bought little more than a few cocktail parties and some congressional photo-ops with Presidents Erdoğan or Barzani.
Successful representations in Washington maintain a broad array of contacts. While Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) representative in Washington, Barham Salih cultivated not only congressmen, but also their junior staffs. He sought relationships not only with star columnists, but also with young writers just out-of-college. When Democrats were in power, he cultivated relationships with Republicans, and vice versa. He understood what many autocrats do not: the key to building relationships was not opportunistic engagement with a single party or those in power, but rather cultivating the next generations of those who might be. Hundreds of people seek meetings with senators, congressmen, National Security Council figures, and editorial writers; few have pre-existing relationships upon which they could fall back. Undercut both by Hero Khan and a number of poor political choices, Barham may be weak back in Kurdistan, but he remains the most popular Kurdish figure in Washington more than 15 years after his departure.
Alas, in recent years, the KRG has forgotten the formula which brought them success. In 2000, PUK leader Jalal Talabani appointed his brother-in-law Muhammad Sabir to succeed Barham. Sabir was an able manager, but he lacked Barham’s charisma or feel for Washington. Whereas Barham was always out and about cultivating contacts, Muhammad hid behind a veil of formality.
Qubad Talabani had Barham’s personal touch, but neither his maturity nor broad perspective. When Sen. Barack Obama defeated his Republican colleague John McCain, some senior Bush administration officials freed from the constraints of White House service, wished to travel to Kurdistan; Qubad dissuaded them, falsely believing that to do so would antagonize Democrats. It would not have, but it convinced Republicans that the Kurds were fair weather friends. Then, as business boomed in Kurdistan, Qubad ignored those from whom his mother or the KRG could not profit in the short-term. First, non-governmental organizations seeking to modernize hospitals could not get their phone calls returned, and then small-time investors fell by the wayside. Finally, as President Masoud Barzani and his sons consolidated power, Qubad cut contacts with those critical of Barzani. In this, he mirrored his contemporaries, Turkish Ambassadors Nabi Sensoy and Tan, who effectively transformed the Turkish embassy into the embassy for a single political party. That might have pleased powers back in Erbil and Ankara, but it was an own-goal when it came to representation. Critics should be cultivated or countered with civil argument; banishment however ultimately only isolated the banisher. To be fair to Qubad and his successor Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the de facto blacklist was less their policy and more that of Falah Mustafa Bakir, Barzani’s translator and chief foreign policy aid. Falah got far with loyalty to Barzani, but both Qubad and Bayan have a better sense of how the West operates. Indeed, Falah’s outreach often undercuts Kurdish goals as he has developed a reputation in Washington as the Kurdish equivalent to Egemen Bağış, Erdoğan’s blustery, brash, and perhaps corrupt right-hand man.
Barham served in Washington at the height of the PUK-Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) conflict but strove never to speak ill to an American audience of his political rivals. After all, developing a relationship between America and Kurdistan was the goal; not forcing Americans to choose sides in an internal Kurdish dispute. Alas, in the years since, too many Kurdish representatives conflate Kurdistan with Barzani, and unnecessarily divide people into friends, who accept uncritically the KRG line, and enemies, who might only disagree with 20 percent of it. Bayan, for her part, has undercut the Kurdish representation by seeking to screen for political loyalty audiences at public events. Put aside that Barzani and Falah are clever men, fully capable of answering tough questions. While Bayan successfully ensured friendly audiences, she also reinforced to senior leaders in American policy circles that Kurdistan is more autocratic than democratic. Indeed, it should embarrass Kurds that the KRG Washington office does more to stifle debate at its events than do the Pakistani, Egyptian, Russian, and Chinese embassies.
Consistency also matters. Bayan was wise in July to host an event for American veterans who have sacrificed greatly for Kurdistan but her actions are undercut by Qubad, who in a fit of pique as representative in Washington had once circulated on his office’s email list a missive about ‘the lies that led to war.’ Such actions raise questions about KRG sincerity which undermine the Kurdish cause in Washington.
Honesty is also important. Barham had a philosophy while in Washington: He would tell only the truth to maintain credibility. That did not mean he had always to be forthcoming, but he would never be caught in a lie. After a February 2014 phone call with Obama, Erdoğan falsely claimed that Obama had condemned Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, prompting a White House rebuke. Even Turkey’s traditional supporters in Washington began distancing themselves from the Erdoğan regime. Lies have cost. Alas, the KRG must now pay the price for Bayan telling multiple congressmen that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had not delivered to Kurdistan its share of arms to fight the Islamic State. The Iraqi government responded with manifests, and Kurds lost what once was a sure-thing vote to receive direct assistance. Mistruths have cost.
In 1975 and 1988, the United States turned its back on the Kurds in their hours of need. In 1991, the United States helped establish the safe-haven and operate the no-fly zone, and in 2003 neutralized Saddam
Hussein’s ethnic chauvinism permanently by removing him from power. American isolationism is never far from the surface. American sympathy only will carry the Kurds so far if Washington again turns inward. How unfortunate it is, therefore, when an effective Kurdish voice is most at need, the KRG’s provincialism and partisanship threatens so many of the gains Kurds have made in the United States.
Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He is author of “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter, 2014). He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute AEI. His major research area is the Middle East, with special focus on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Kurdish society