By John Bolton
October 10, 2017
Iraqi Kurdistan's recent referendum on whether to declare
independence from Baghdad garnered only slight attention in the U.S. Even the
overwhelming vote (93 percent favored independence) and America's long
involvement in the region did not make the story more prominent.
Nonetheless, we would be badly mistaken to underestimate
its importance for U.S. policy throughout the Middle East.
Protecting American interests in that tumultuous region has
never been easy. Not only does Iran's nuclear-weapons threat loom ever larger,
but the struggle against terrorism, whether from Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaida or
any number of new splinter groups, seems unending.
Less visible but nonetheless significant forces are also at
work. Existing state structures across the Middle East are breaking down and new
ones are emerging, exacerbating the spreading anarchy caused by radical Islamic
terrorism. Non-ideological factors such as ethnicity and cultural differences
are enormously powerful and best understood as movements in the region's
"tectonic plates," stirring beneath the surface of the more apparent
threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
None of these tectonic plates has more immediate
implications for America's Middle East policy than the Kurdish people's
long-standing determination to have their own nation-state. Modern-era Kurdish
aspirations for statehood emerged during the Ottoman Empire's post-World War I
collapse, as European powers redrew the region's map. The Kurds were
unsuccessful in pressing their case, however, and their lands were split among
Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Nonetheless Kurdish longing for a separate state never
dissipated, leading to considerable conflict, most visibly in Turkey. The West
largely was unsympathetic in recent years because separatists in Turkish
Kurdistan channeled their major efforts through the Marxist Kurdistan Workers'
Party. Obviously, during the Cold War, Washington and the West generally had no
interest in weakening Turkey and its critical geostrategic role as NATO's
southeast anchor against Soviet adventurism.
Outside Turkey, however, especially in Iraq, Kurds played a
much more constructive role, helping the United States in both Persian Gulf
Iraqi Kurdistan became de facto independent from Saddam
Hussein's Iraq in 1991, protected by the U.S-led operation known as
"Northern Comfort," which included massive humanitarian assistance and
a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Saddam's 2003 overthrow opened the prospect of
reunifying the country, but Iranian subversion, using Iraq's Shia majority to
turn the country into its satellite, refueled Kurdish separatism.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs were also unwilling to be ruled by a
Baghdad regime dominated by Shia adherents, who were little more than Iranian
puppets. The rise of ISIS in Iraq occurred in part from this hostility, just as
in Syria, ISIS capitalized on the anti-Assad feelings of Sunni Arabs, who felt
excluded and oppressed by the dominant Alawite elite in Damascus.
With the destruction of the ISIS caliphate in Syria, the
question of what comes next is unavoidably before us. The United States needs to
recognize that Iraq and Syria as we have known them have ceased to exist as
functioning states. They are broken and cannot be fixed.
This disintegration reflects the Middle East's broader,
spreading anarchy, and it provides the context for Kurdish Iraq's overwhelming
support for independence from Baghdad.
I have previously suggested that disaffected Sunni Arabs in
Iraq and Syria might combine to form their own secular (but religiously Sunni)
state, which the Gulf Arabs could help support financially. Indeed, while
substantial issues remain about allocating the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk
between Kurds and Arabs, the Kurds themselves are largely Sunni, which suggests
considerable confluence of interest with their Arab fellow Sunnis. Helping a new
Kurdistan and a new Sunni state might overcome the current split among the
Arabian peninsula's oil-producing monarchies and focus their attention on Iran,
the real threat to their security.
Unfortunately, but entirely predictably, our State
Department opposed even holding the referendum and firmly rejects Kurdish
independence. This policy needs to be reversed immediately, turning U.S.
obstructionism into leadership. Kurdish independence efforts did not create
regional instability but instead reflect the unstable reality.
Independence could well promote greater Middle Eastern
security and stability than the collapsing post-World War I order.
Recognizing that full Kurdish independence is far from
easy, these issues today are no longer abstract and visionary but all too
concrete. This is no time to be locked into outdated strategic thinking.