In a landmark referendum next Monday, Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on whether to declare independence. The outcome is not in question. Iraq’s Kurds have been largely self-governing for 25 years, but they yearn to be sovereign in a state of their own, just like the region’s other great ethnic and linguistic groups — Arabs, Turks, Persians, Jews.
The Kurdish campaign for statehood ought to have the robust backing of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are ardently pro-American, unabashed allies in a region where the US has few true friends. The Kurds make no secret of their deep gratitude to the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who waged a war of genocide against Kurdistan in the 1980s, slaughtering at least 50,000 civilians with chemical weapons and aerial assaults.
Kurdistan isn’t just a grateful ally, it’s a capable and skillful one. Kurdish soldiers, known as Peshmerga, are widely acknowledged to be America’s most effective partners in the fight against the Islamic State. They played a central role in the recent liberation of Raqqa and of Mosul from ISIS. As waves of refugees have fled the violence unleashed by the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war, nearly 2 million have found a safe haven in Kurdistan. Among them are many thousands of Christians.
Yet instead of applauding the Kurds’ bid for independence, the United States keeps dousing it with cold water.
For weeks, the Trump administration has pressed Kurdish officials to call off the scheduled plebiscite. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis worry that a vote for independence — bitterly opposed by Turkey, Iran, and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad — would imperil the coalition’s efforts to crush ISIS. On Friday, the White House spokeswoman announced flatly that the United States “does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum.”
This is foolish and short-sighted — and reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech 25 years ago.
In the summer of 1991, when it was clear that the Soviet Union’s days were numbered, pro-independence sentiment surged in Ukraine, which had long chafed under Moscow’s rule. On Aug. 1, Bush traveled to Kiev and delivered a speech cautioning Ukrainians not to be seduced by “suicidal nationalism” — i.e., not to seek a path out of the Soviet empire. Ukrainians rightly scorned Bush’s message. Four months later, they voted overwhelmingly to approve a declaration of independence.
Iraqi Kurds will do the same next week. And if any country should be applauding, it is the United States.
It’s true that an independent Kurdistan would mean the end of Iraq as a unitary state. It’s also true that it might inspire restlessness among Kurdish minorities in other countries. So what? Iraq’s borders, an artifact of post-World War I colonialism, have never made much sense. Is it in Washington’s interest that Iraq remain indivisible? No more than it was when it came to the USSR or Czechoslovakia.
And if an independent Kurdish state discomfits Turkey, Iran, Syria — well, what of it? For decades, all three have brutally repressed the Kurds within their borders. All three today are dictatorships largely hostile to US interests. That includes Turkey, which, though formally a NATO ally, now sides regularly with America’s enemies and has moved decisively into the Islamist camp.
Kurds have earned the right to sovereignty. Like the Jews of pre-statehood Palestine, they have used their limited autonomy to prove their fitness for independence — building up the elements of democracy and civil society, developing a lively economy, choosing responsible leaders, and nourishing institutions of culture and education. A sovereign Kurdistan would advance America’s goals in the Middle East, while impeding those of Russia and Iran. It would be a force for peace, stability, and minority rights, and against terrorism, tyranny, and jihadist extremism.
A free and democratic Kurdistan will be a blessing to its people, a model for the Middle East, and a rock-solid ally of America. When Kurds go to the polls next week, it should be with our admiration and support.