Talabani, Kurdistan and the Future of IraqBy Nora Elizabeth Barakat
For the bulk of President Jalal Talabani's speech at the World Leader's Forum, I felt that I could have been watching my own president, George W. Bush. Mr. Talabani used Bush administration rhetoric copiously, dutifully condemning the 'insurgency', pledging to defeat the terrorists and enemies of freedom. Terrorists | start: 00:08:59 | end: 00:10:05 However, there was one instance in which I caught a glimpse of President Talabani's politics minus the White House. After a Turkish student asked Talabani what he meant when he used the word Kurdistan in his speech, Talabani answered vehemently, hands in the air, that he didn't create Kurdistan, rather God created Kurdistan! God created Kurdistan | start: 00:41:49 | end: 00:42:42 "Ah," I thought, "Not a statement I would expect to find in Bush's next State of the Union address."
Talabani is, of course, not the first leader in the Middle East to claim that God created a nation state. Besides the obvious and contemporary Zionist claims, in my "Nationalism in the Arab World" class at Columbia we are reading various early Arabists and Arab nationalists who were saying the same thing about an Arab nation, in various forms, around the time in which the Kurds were beginning to imagine their nationalized community. What caught my attention in Talabani's speech was his spontaneity: had he not been pushed by the Turkish student, he may never have let his audience catch that glimpse of his true loyalties. For although Talabani may be able to rhetoricize like the Americans occupying Iraq, and their 'anti-terrorist' rhetoric may serve his cause, his aims are ultimately different from theirs. Whatever the Bush administration's goals were in March of 2003, it is doubtful that liberating Kurdistan was very high on their list.
This is also not the first time Kurdish leaders have pinned their nationalist aims to their American benefactors, but in the past this decision has left them gravely disappointed and vulnerable to massacre. After Saddam Hussein nationalized the Iraqi petroleum industry in 1972, President Nixon and the Shah of Iran conspired on a plan to subvert Hussein's move by aiding a Kurdish uprising in Iraq. However, when the Shah made a separate deal with the Iraqis in 1975, the plan was aborted and the Kurds were left at the mercy of Hussein's reprisals. A similar scenario unfolded in 1991, when American forces withdrew from the Persian Gulf prematurely, leaving Hussein's forces with enough power to violently quell Kurdish and Shiite uprisings. Various American administrations have shown Kurdish nationalist leaders, Mr. Talabani himself included, what a low priority their aims are at the White House, yet Mr. Talabani still seems to believe that the Americans are his best hope for Kurdish autonomy.
Tom Hill, director of the Iraq Program at the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia, once described to me a few meetings he had with Kurdish leaders who tried to convince him that the Americans are crazy not to recognize that they have two friends, not one, in the Middle East: the Kurds and the Israelis, and that the Kurds would sincerely love to become the fifty-first American state. Mr. Hill explained the lack of a substantial Kurdish American lobby, not least in a laundry list of reasons why the Americans are not likely to throw their weight behind the Kurdish nationalist cause, but it seems that Talabani has elected to try yet again. My question to Talabani is, how pragmatic is it to invest so much in an occupier whom so many others in the country of which he is president, Iraq, not Kurdistan, seem to resent?
Azmi Bishara, the prominent Palestinian writer and politician and member of the Israeli Knesset, gave a lecture last week at Columbia in which he outlined the main problem with the 'pluralist democracy' which the American government is attempting to 'export' to Iraq. In this country, our political competition is based on ideas, or at least we attempt to structure our system that way. We do not have a Protestant party, a Catholic party, a Muslim party, etc. The democracy the United States is exporting, and the democracy other imperial powers have exported before it, is based on power sharing which is firmly rooted in identity. In Iraq, allotments for Shia, Sunni and Kurd lead to Shia, Sunni and Kurd constituencies, to increased sectarianism and eventually to civil war. We recently examined the doctrine of power sharing as a democratization scheme in our mandatory "Conceptual Foundations of International Politics" class at the School for International and Public Affairs, and found it difficult to procure historical examples of power sharing systems like the current plan in Iraq, which did not include mass bloodshed in their 'transitions'.
While listening to Mr. Bishara, Mr. Talabani's words were fresh in my mind. President Talabani made one pragmatic, sect transcending and frankly un-American statement in his speech when he spoke of a greater Arab League role in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (the Arab League has never been a great friend to Kurds). Arab League | start: :33:58 | end: :35:28 However, in response to a journalism student's question regarding the inconsistency in Mr. Talabani's refusal to warrant Iraqi court-ordered executions as the President of Iraq, because of his adherence to an anti-death penalty treaty he signed as the leader of Kurdistan, Mr. Talabani spoke about his convictions coming before his office and did not address the heart of this very important question: What precedent is set by the president of a sovereign nation who acts based on regional, rather than national, obligations when faced with sensitive issues? death penalty | start: 00:29:13 | end: 00:30:46 President Talabani's candor on both of these points paled in comparison to his assertion that God created Kurdistan, leading the audience to believe that his regional loyalties may trump his national post in areas beyond the death penalty.
Perhaps Mr. Talabani is betting on the Americans staying, or staying at least long enough for the federal state of Kurdistan to develop into a fifty-first American state capable of crippling its neighbors. The Americans are definitely around to stay, if not in their present form than as oil contractors and on military bases throughout the country. However, America's first priority has not been, nor is it likely to become, the protection of Kurdistan.
Whatever the future of Kurdistan is, it is clear that the President of Iraq has bought into the Bush administration framework of loyalties, consistent with his history of Kurdish nationalist activism: sectarian community first, Iraq second. It is obvious why Iraqi nationalism might be threatening to the Bush administration, as other nationalist movements in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Iraq itself have been in the past. Nationalist Iraqi leaders may not want American military bases all over their country, may not be quite as friendly to Texas contractors and may not want to negotiate with the Israelis. These realities, it seems, are less palatable to the Bush administration than an Iraq violently divided along sectarian lines and busy with its own daily security crisis. But does the Bush administration's vision ultimately serve President Talabani and the Kurds, let alone the majority of the Iraqi people?
This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL).