Conceptualizing US foreign policy towards the Kurds by Marianna Charountaki*
The importance of the Kurdish issue for regional development in the volatile Middle East, its active role in regional and international politics and in US-Middle Eastern foreign policy in particular became clearer in the last meetings of Massoud Barzani with Barack Obama on April 4-5, and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on April 19, who welcomed Barzani as the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rather than a “tribal leader,” as he stated in 2007.
I identify five stages that the US relationship underwent with the Kurds of Iraq, the only Kurdish movement at present to be in an interactive relationship with the US, which parallel five phases of US foreign policy in the Middle East. With regards to the rest of the Kurdish movements, I find the US relations with the Kurds of Turkey to be at the “proto-stage” of an interactive relationship, possibly to give a further push to Turkey’s Kurdish issue while covert US economic aid and occasional US contacts with the Kurds in Iran and Syria occurred only in the post-Saddam era.
Although US preoccupation with non-state actors was first expressed at the Paris Conference in 1919, US interest in minority issues was limited. US interest in Iran’s Kurdish issue as an observer of the Soviet-Kurdish rapprochement is indicative of the nature of the US relations with the Kurds during the early Cold War, justified by the prolonged US political distancing from the Middle Eastern region until the 1940s.
The shift in US foreign policy from an isolationist position towards world affairs to increased, if indirect, political involvement for the preservation of the regional status quo against communism directed US attention to the Kurds in Iraq. Richard Nixon’s “Twin Pillars” doctrine from 1969-74, which initiated the second change in US foreign policy, reshaped US strategy towards the Middle East. The US employment of specific regional state (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and non-state (Iraq’s Kurds) actors would serve the US objective to exercise indirect control in the Middle East. US interest in non-state actors, whether religious or ethnic groups, is probably rooted in this period.
Covert US economic aid to the Kurds of Iraq in August 1969 to safeguard the region from Soviet expansion and weaken Iraq as the USSR’s ally resulted in US contacts with the Kurds restricted to those of Iraq. This first stage of US-Kurdish relations is an interesting development that should be linked more to regional events in the context of the Cold War’s political climate rather than to the Kurdish issue per se. The initial limited contacts between the US and Iraq’s Kurds, which started on a humanitarian basis in the form of economic aid, were transformed into a covert but direct US-Kurdish relationship at an official level in July 1972 as the outcome of a number of factors. These factors that made the Kurds useful as a tool of balancing were, among others, Soviet penetration in both Iran and Iraq and US favor of Iran as the second pillar of Nixon’s strategy against Soviet communism and Iraq’s Ba’thist regime, in addition to Saddam’s nationalization policies and the USSR-Iraq friendship treaty of 1972.
Looking at the post-Cold War era
The post-Cold War period initiated a new era for the state of international politics. The 1991 Gulf War increased US interactions with the Kurds of Iraq and signaled the third stage in the US rapport with Iraq’s Kurds, which turned into extensive and official but overt interactions in 1992. These culminated in a stable and institutionalized relationship of strategic importance following the 9/11 events and Turkey’s refusal to participate actively in the 2003 Iraq War and finally evolved into a proper US-Kurdish policy within an Iraqi framework in the post-Saddam era, marking thus the fifth stage of their relations.
Whereas these changes were initially caused by the dependence of the Kurdish issue on the convergence of US national interests and Kurdish demands determined unilaterally by the US, from 9/11 onwards, the KRG as a semi-autonomous entity is found to be acting more independently in its relationship with the US. The individual oil contracts with foreign (including American) companies, as well as Kurdish regional and international interaction indicate the onset of the recognition of their leading role in international politics as a dynamic respected by US (and regional) foreign policies.
Thus, US Kurdish policy or policies should be linked to the changes of the US-Middle Eastern foreign policy. Analysis of the period that followed Clinton’s fourth move towards building up an explicit form of regional interventionism and setting the foundation of the US “containment” of both state actors via the Iraq Liberation Act, and non-state entities, namely terrorist groups especially after 9/11, ushered in the fifth change in US foreign policy. This change saw the George W. Bush administration’s policies of Saddam’s removal, the explicit opening by the United States to Iraq’s Kurds as its first non-state ally, and the replacing of the traditional US policy of ‘containment’ with regional democratization which produced the onset of an ‘all-out’ US interference in the Middle East
The revelation of a five stage US–Kurdish relationship, argued about in detail in my book as its original finding that parallel the five stages of US foreign policy to the George W. Bush administration, clarify the effective role of Iraq’s Kurds -- as a non-state entity -- in the preparations being made by US foreign policy for a post-Saddam era. Thus, not only did the US foreign policy appear able to direct Kurdish developments, but also Kurdish influence on the articulation of US foreign policy practice was revealed as being of equal importance.
*Dr. Marianna Charountaki completed her Ph.D. in Middle East Studies at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. She is the author of the book “The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945” (Routledge, 2010).