In early December, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry traveled first to Baghdad and then to Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In Baghdad, Perry met with key elected officials: President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, and Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Al-Halbousi, for example. He then traveled to Erbil where Masoud Barzani, the former president of the Kurdistan Region, received him prior to meetings with Masoud’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani and son Masrour Barzani.
Nechirvan is regional prime minister and was, a week prior to Perry’s trip, nominated to succeed Masoud. Masrour, meanwhile, is slated to succeed his cousin in the Barzani game of musical chairs. What Perry ignored or his handlers failed to tell him was that Masoud’s presidency ended in 2015 though he refused to step down until November 2017.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with many of the same Iraqi political figures in his subsequent visit to Iraq and, like Perry, flew up to Erbil to meet with Masoud Barzani before departing the country.
Is there any harm, however, to paying heed to Masoud Barzani? After all, he is a major Kurdish leader. He has, for more than a quarter century, dominated the politics if not of Iraqi Kurdistan as a whole than at least of half of it. On a personal level, he has been wildly successful—returning to the region after its 1991 uprising with little more than the clothes on his back and making himself a billionaire many times over in the following decades. He is also the son of a widely-respected Kurdish general and political leader, the late Mulla Mustafa.
Alas, yes. What Perry and Pompeo did was to bless warlordism in Iraq just as the Iraqis struggle to emerge from its shadow. The question is not if Masoud is more effective than Nechirvan. After all, if that excused meeting with a one-time Saddam Hussein ally whose main role today is as a local warlord, why not meet with former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi? Whatever faults Abadi might have had, it is already clear he was a more effective prime minister than Abd Al-Mahdi is or will be. Nor was Abd Al-Mahdi personally corrupt in the manner of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Or perhaps Perry and Pompeo should have sought out Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani instead of Parliamentary Speaker Halbousi. After all, had it not been for a campaign of vote buying coordinated by the Iranian military leader, Halbousi had no shot of assuming his current position.
Is waving away democratic legitimacy the price to pay in order to win an anti-Iranian ally? Perhaps that was the reason for Perry and Pompeo’s move. But, to believe that Barzani or the Kurds are solidly anti-Iranian is foolish. Just ask Nechirvan Barzani who, more than a decade ago, betrayed U.S. efforts to capture senior Qods Force officials and that was at a time when the United States had tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Or Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, who visited Erbil soon after Pompeo, winning diplomatic pledges from Masoud similar in tone but opposite in effect to those promised to Pompeo.
Barzani sings a good song to U.S. officials but, historically, he and other senior Kurdish officials have been equally at home with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and, for that matter, Saddam Hussein. Masoud Barzani was born in Iran, and fled there upon the collapse of his father’s rebellion in 1975. This is not to say that Barzani has any ideological loyalty to Iran; he most certainly does not. He distrusts Tehran almost as much as he distrusts Washington, but he also believes that, when push comes to shove, he and his sons face greater peril at Iran’s hands if he does not please Khamenei and Soleimani.
The imagery of U.S. leaders flying to Erbil is also unfortunate. Less than two years ago, Barzani embraced separatism in defiance of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. To fly to Erbil simply to meet Masoud Barzani is, in effect, to supplicate before him. In the imagery of the Middle East, it depicts Barzani as strong and the United States as weak. If the meeting was important enough to Barzani, he could be told to travel to Baghdad. At the very least, treating the corrupt and disgraced Barzani as a figure equal in importance to Iraqi President Barham Saleh (who is also a Kurd) or Prime Minister Abd Al-Mahdi is certain to encourage again Barzani’s separatist fantasies.
Iraq is a maturing democracy. According to UN statistics, terrorist casualties have declined by an order of magnitude over the last couple years. Iraq has, since 2005, had four successive and peaceful transfers of power between rival politicians and, in 2018, rival political parties. The same dynamic, alas, does not exist in Iraqi Kurdistan where Barzani has held himself and his sons above the law and has murdered journalists who have criticized him and threatened the public with the renewal of civil war when facing demands to obey the region’s basic laws. To inflate Barzani harkens back to past efforts to inflate other warlords who would ignore electoral and legal legitimacy. It convinces the Nouri Al-Malikis and Muqtada Al-Sadrs of Iraq to undermine the democratic process or to use violence against their opponents because the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
To be fair, there are many in Washington—especially within the State Department—who raised such concerns before these meetings. It appears the National Security Council overrode them. Some administrations—think Carter’s and Clinton’s—get so mired in the trees if not the weeds that they never see the forest. Alas, Trump appears different: his National Security Council appears either so besought by the mythology spread by the Iraqi Kurds or blinded by animosity toward Iran, that they have based their Iraq policy on something much closer to myth than reality. Like the embrace of Iraq’s division embraced by Joe Biden while still in the senate, such efforts are doomed from their start, but that does not mean the damage will not be real. Putting Barzani on a pedestal will weaken Iraq and it will do nothing to address the fatal flaws in Kurdish society. Alas, the only victor in such circumstances will be Iran, not Iraq, the Kurds, or the United States.