US-Kurdish relations, short term venture or a long term partnership

September 8, 2010

The visit of US vice-president Joe Biden to Arbil was an important recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan and president Barzani and the role the region plays in Iraq’s political process.
It was also seen as a reassurance that US relations with Kurdistan region are intact. But what type of relations exist today?
Depending on the size and gravity of the problem, the level of contact between the two have ranged between the Americans inviting Kurdish leaders to the White House to a phone call or meeting in Baghdad when the American president is in town.
Other means of contact are usually left up to the vice-president or the secretaries of state or defense, who call Kurdish leaders and occasionally visit Kurdistan.
Thus far, Kurdish-US relations have fluctuated based on the issue at hand – with the problem usually involving Baghdad, Kirkuk or Turkey.
The typical scenario is that the Kurds are adamant about a certain issue, and the US steps in with either a visit, invitation or a phone call. The Kurdish stance softens soon afterwards.
A key issue that the Kurds are debating now is whether they are getting their money’s worth out of this relationship.
Some Kurds say that the US needs Iraqi Kurdistan more than Iraqi Kurdistan needs the US today, as Iraqi Kurdistan is the only success story of the US liberation of Iraq.
This may not be a very popular statement amongst the Kurds in general. Many still want to believe that the US is Iraqi Kurdistan’s key partner and ally.
But this could change. Relations are usually based on give and take. The Kurds maintain that despite positively responding to all of America’s requests, the US is not as responsive when the Kurds ask for help on any their issues.
The issues of article 140, revenue-sharing, relations with Turkey and the constant shelling of borders are all issues that the Kurds believe that the US could play a more effective role in solving.
Thus far, on the surface at least, America’s high-profile political engagement with Kurdistan came during crises, when they wanted the Kurds to soften their position.
While it is clear that the Kurdish relationship with the US is a valuable, strategic option that the Kurds cannot abandon, they can certainly manage it better. Relations with the United States are deeply rooted and long-term – they are not just with the administration that happens to be in power.
America’s pride in Iraqi Kurdistan’s achievements is mostly limited to security and stability. They are still hesitant to speak out when it comes to democracy, good governance, transparency, anti corruption, freedom of speech and human rights.
While steps have been taken on a democratic path, Iraqi Kurdistan still has some way to go.
It is not difficult to become an ally of the United States, but it may be more of a challenge to become a true ally and partner.
Measures to combat corruption, promote transparency and good governance, and uphold human rights and freedom of speech are all steps that Iraqi Kurdistan’s leadership can take.
This would create a much more solid foundation for Kurdish-US relations. It would also open the scope for more partners. Let’s not forget that some Kurds argue that compared to its neighbors, Iraqi Kurdistan is much better off in terms of democratic progress.
But this comparison doesn’t stand because no country in the region constitutes a good example of democracy, human rights and good governance. The Kurdistan region should look at the European democracies as a model.
Kurdish-US relations are at a crossroads. They can either resemble US relations with its pseudo allies in the region like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or they can be modeled after America’s relations with democracies in Europe.
It is now up to the Kurds and the US to decide which way it will go.

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