On September 25, Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum not only in its recognized territory, but also in ethnically-mixed areas of Iraq to which both it and the Iraqi government have laid claims.
The Kurdish move came despite multiple requests and entreaties at all levels of the US government against such a move.
While Kurdish officials repeatedly told their own politicians and Kurdish journalists that they had secret US support, this was nonsense and meant to imply endorsement where none occurred.
In effect, de facto Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani crossed a red-line and now US credibility is at stake.
How did we get to this point and how should the United States respond?
First, the US approach to Barzani has replicated a common mistake in US diplomacy: Subordinating democratic legitimacy to the ease of partnering with a single individual.
Betting on an individual rather than a system seldom works. In the run-up to the Oslo Accords, for example, the State Department sought to work with exiled and increasingly irrelevant Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat rather than seek to work with the grassroots Palestinians who led the first Intifada but did not necessarily speak with a single voice. The logic was simple: It’s easier to negotiate with strongmen, and dictators can better deliver on security and peace.
That the gamble on Arafat failed, however, is obvious. Terrorism increased. While an independent Palestine might this year be celebrating its 17th anniversary, Arafat’s choices steered the Palestinians down the path to chaos in which they remain mired today.
US Special Envoy Brett McGurk essentially made the same bet on Barzani two years ago at the expiration of his legitimate term in office that peace processor Dennis Ross once did on Arafat.
Barzani at the time had a choice to become the region’s Nelson Mandela or its Yasser Arafat. If he chose the former, he could have become a senior statesman and set the Kurdish region down the path to democracy. Alas, he chose the latter.
Alas, Barzani chose to emulate Arafat. While Barzani never engaged in the terrorism that Arafat did, he was corrupt and more interested in personal power than building a responsible, functioning state.
Indeed, when Kurdish leaders cite the oppression they have suffered as a reason for statehood, they often fail to mention that Barzani himself partnered with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein just eight years after Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against the Kurds and disappeared hundreds of Barzani’s own tribesmen.
McGurk, however, appears to have believed that the stability inherent in continuing to deal with Barzani against the backdrop of the military campaign against ISIS trumped recognizing Parliamentary Speaker Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq as the temporary regional leader, as Kurdish law dictated, and encouraging elections.
The reality is that a political transition in Kurdistan might have actually improved the fight against ISIS by enabling the peshmerga to focus on the military rather than political agenda.
Nor are political transitions, even at times of crisis, necessarily bad. After all, the transition from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Haider Abadi in Baghdad enhanced Iraqi effectiveness in the campaign against ISIS.