Now is the time to recognize Kurdistan

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Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts designed to build on Professor Jeremi Suri's foreign policy column, which runs every Tuesday.

Professor Jeremi Suri wrote last week that the U.S. needs to adopt a new approach towards fighting terrorism. Instead of applying punitive sanctions or military force, he argues, the U.S. should promote economic development and education.

Indeed, as Suri wrote, American interventions in the Middle East have been absurdly ineffective. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein led to eight years of Nouri al-Maliki and a sectarian conflict that enabled the rise of ISIS, neither of which benefits human rights, democracy, or America’s commercial interests. And despite having spent over a decade fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. hasn’t come any closer to eradicating the spread of Islamist extremism. Clearly, Suri is right that there is a better way to promote democracy, cultivate free markets, and defeat the hydra of fascistic terrorism.

That being said, there’s no need to plunk billions of dollars in aid and investments into unstable countries with untrustworthy leaders. The European Investment Bank has been doing exactly that for years with zero success, and America’s financial support for Iraq and Afghanistan has only managed to prop up kleptocrats like al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai. Instead of trying to build up failed states, the U.S. should empower those that have already laid the foundations for a free and prosperous society. To that end, creating an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan should be America’s top priority in the Middle East.

Iraq’s Kurdish region is situated in a tinderbox of insurgency, nestled between the country’s border with Syria and its ISIS-controlled western provinces. Yet in spite of its tenuous location, it has become a safe haven for ethnic minorities like the Yazidis and the Circassians, many of whom have been displaced by Iraq’s inner turmoil. It has a strong and American-armed security force that has played a critical role in the war against ISIS. Its capital, Erbil, is a thriving and rapidly developing metropolis. It supports other crucial U.S. allies in the region, including Armenia and Israel. And, most importantly, its democratically elected government fiercely rejects any form of religious fundamentalism or ethnocentric extremism.

In light of these virtues, an independent Kurdistan would become a beacon of hope for the region. It would provide military and diplomatic support to counterterrorism efforts, and its success could even motivate movements in favor of secularism and democracy across the entire Middle East—a true Arab Spring. But in order to do so, it must first achieve full sovereignty over its internal affairs and full representation in international agencies like the U.N. and the WTO.

Fortunately, granting Iraqi Kurdistan that sort of legitimacy is a far simpler proposition than it was in the past. The Turkish government was once resolutely opposed to Kurdish independence, as Kurds claim sovereignty over a large part of eastern Turkey. However, in recent years, Turkey has come to view Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential homeland for its own Kurdish minority, and it recently established a consular office in Erbil to promote deeper diplomatic ties between the two nations. Similarly, the U.S. resists recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan on the grounds that Kurdish secession would kill its dream of forming a multiethnic democracy in Iraq. That goal has clearly failed, as Iraq has only become more fragmented and lawless since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

For Kurdistan to languish in stateless purgatory while Syria and Iraq have collapsed and ISIS runs amok is an affront to human decency and an indefensible failure of American foreign policy. But Iraq’s current circumstances and Turkey’s declining recalcitrance have given President Obama the perfect opportunity to rectify this injustice. Whether or not he takes it will have major consequences for the future of the Middle East.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He is a research assistant to Suri.