In his recent interview with Thomas Friedman the president was clear that he’s hesitant to “be in the business of being the Iraqi air force.” Since he is in that business, it’s fair to wonder how he got there. Commentators friendly to Obama, including Matt Yglesias, have taken the view that his desire to limit engagement in the region reflects a kind of necessary realism. No doubt this is how the president himself views his actions. However this view contains a presumption of American competence that is not warranted. The truth is that military action became necessary precisely because the administration lacks a realistic strategy.
In Kurdistan examples are everywhere of the failure of American diplomacy. Refugees have been a problem for months, but only in the last few days has our government gotten serious about providing large scale material support to the Kurds. My work in Kurdistan was focused on public health problems like typhoid, and even under the best of circumstances the infrastructure there is strained. There are now added a million refugees to that mix, an enormous burden for the healthcare and security services of a small region. A large American relief effort was needed back in June, or better yet earlier, and would have taken great stress off the Kurdistan Regional Government.
On the economic front the State Department has gone out of its way to be unhelpful. The Kurdish government is in a desperate economic situation due to the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and the central government’s refusal to share oil revenue. The refusal to share revenue is a recent problem, and it’s an attempt by Baghdad politicians such as Nouri al-Maliki to keep the Kurds from developing their own export capacity. The Obama team has adopted Maliki’s line, in essence arguing that Kurdish oil undermines Iraqi unity. That’s an idea that has become increasingly ridiculous with each setback in Baghdad.
In fact Kurdish oil was an opportunity for Obama to rid America of the whole awful business of buying oil from anti-American interests in Baghdad. Kurdish export capacity could have been built into the broader Iraqi system, provided it can reform itself, or developed separately, depending on the need. But the idea of Kurds breaking away from Iraq was anathema to the Obama team. Instead they welded themselves to Baghdad, and compounded the Kurds’ economic problems, by actively discouraging buyers of Kurdish oil. Even before a Texas court ruled that a Kurdish tanker be seized if it approaches the US, the Obama team was undermining Kurdish oil sales. Here’s an excerpt from the State Department’s daily briefing on July 25th:
QUESTION: Are you actively warning the – say, the U.S. firms or other foreign governments to not buy Kurdish oil specifically?
MS. HARF: Well, we have been very clear that if there are legal issues that arise, if they undertake activities where there might be arbitration, that there could potentially be legal consequences. So we certainly warn people of that.
QUESTION: Do you keep doing that now too?
MS. HARF: We are repeatedly doing that, yes.
The result is ongoing economic strangulation at precisely the moment the Kurds are being attacked by ISIS. Government salaries haven’t been paid in months. One physician friend in Sulaimania wrote to me that the doctors are working for free. There have also been acute fuel shortages.
Security is the most obvious area where American soft power has failed. For months now the Kurds have been lobbying for a more coordinated approach against ISIS, and they have gotten the cold shoulder over and over. The Obama team was content to arm a disloyal and unreliable Iraqi Army, and they were perplexed when those heavy weapons ended up under ISIS control. But they refused to coordinate significant weapons procurement for the Peshmerga, despite increasingly desperate appeals, until the ISIS rampage forced them to change tack this past week.
Obama likes to claim he’s a supporter of American soft power. He stresses that military action is a last resort. In Kurdistan it’s been the only resort. American soft power, through obtuse policy and simple negligence, has been working for the other side. For Obama’s inner circle the priority has been the concept of Iraqi unity, not the empowerment of people in that country who are actually friendly towards Americans. This is anything but enlightened realism. Rather there’s cynicism and wishful thinking in equal measure. It’s not too late for Obama to change course, but the air strikes themselves do not indicate such a change. Rather they are further evidence that during the past few months there has been no American strategy for Kurdistan other than emergency response.