I know. Foreign policy has been largely an afterthought in the
presidential campaign. Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is off the radar
screen entirely -- except as a Democratic talking point, Bush's misbegotten war
that Obama allegedly "ended." So a post on the plight of a rather obscure Iraqi
politician -- and the merits of the Kurdish region he now calls home -- amounts
to so much spitting in the wind, right?
Probably. On the other hand, this week's news -- rampaging
anti-American mobs across the Arab world, skyrocketing U.S.-Israeli tensions --
has brought into sharp relief one of the main critiques of the administration's
foreign policy. Its sustained efforts to mollify enemies at the expense of
longtime friends has fomented a dangerous perception of American weakness,
irresolution, and retreat in the Middle East -- the slow-motion breakdown of a
U.S.-led order that, unless reversed, will inexorably invite far more destabilizing
and costly challenges down the road.
From that perspective, perhaps an appeal for greater solidarity
with some true Iraqi friends will not fall totally on deaf ears.
Mithal Alusi is the leader of Iraq's Democratic Nation Party.
Since his return to Iraq in late 2003, Mithal has been without question the
country's most outspoken and courageous champion of liberal values, unwavering
in his defense of free speech, free press, free markets, religious tolerance,
and human rights -- especially full equality for women.
Mithal's foreign policy prescriptions have been no less bold. The
enemy is clear: Fascists in all their guises -- Islamic or secular, Shiite or
Sunni -- that systematically deploy terror, violence, and brutality against
innocents at home and abroad in service to their own power, ambition, and
ideologically-driven delusions of grandeur. Iran, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Bashar al Assad, and the miscreants that murdered Chris Stevens and his colleagues in
Benghazi all fit the bill. Clear, too, is Mithal's prescription: an
anti-fascist alliance dedicated to defending civilization against its enemies,
led by those countries most victimized by totalitarian terror, the United
States, Israel, and . . . Iraq.
And Mithal has walked the walk, at great personal sacrifice. In
2004, he attended a counter-terrorism conference in Israel. When he returned to Baghdad, Islamists called
for his head. One-time political allies ran for cover, disavowing and
abandoning him. In early 2005, Sunni extremists targeted him for assassination,
in the process murdering his two sons -- Mithal's only children.
Alusi refused to bow. Instead, he started his own grass-roots
political movement dedicated to building an independent, liberal, and
unabashedly pro-Western Iraq. If anything, Mithal's denunciations of
Saddamists, Al Qaeda, and the Iranian mullahs grew louder. Starved of cash,
advertising, and foreign support, facing an electoral system heavily rigged in
favor of large Islamist parties, and equipped solely with his own compelling
message, Mithal defied overwhelming odds to win a seat in Iraq's December 2005
From his legislative perch, Mithal ignored advice to trim his
sails. In 2008, he repeated the heresy of visiting Israel. Again, he called for
a U.S.-led alliance to combat terrorism. He mocked the Islamic world's boycott
of Israel, asking why the likes of Abu Mazen or Ali Khamenei should be allowed
to dictate the foreign policy of an independent Iraq, denying it the chance to
serve as a bridge for Middle Eastern peace and benefit from relations with a
prosperous and technologically advanced Israel.
Mithal's enemies responded with a vengeance. Islamists in Iraq's
Council of Representatives moved to strip Mithal of his parliamentary immunity,
demanding his arrest under a Saddam-era law that made travel to Israel a
hanging offense. His government-funded security detail was withdrawn -- even as
the threats against his life escalated exponentially.
True to form, Mithal didn't run. He fought back. He went on the
offensive against his political opponents, branding them tools of Iran. He took
his case to Iraq's Supreme Court, arguing that the law forbidding his travel to
Israel violated Iraq's constitution. To people's amazement, the court agreed. Mithal returned to parliament, triumphant,
but with his enemies more determined than ever to see him gone.
Their chance came in 2010 when Mithal lost his bid for
re-election. Beset by all the same obstacles he faced four years earlier and
more, Mithal insisted that his vote count had been suppressed through a
combination of fraud, intimidation, and dirty tricks. Iraq's electoral
authorities denied his claim.
Bereft of any official position, the state-sanctioned squeeze
against Mithal intensified. His official security detail was again withdrawn.
Then his personal bodyguards, comprised of supporters who often worked for no
pay, were denied permits to carry weapons. Pretexts were found to shutter his
party's headquarters in Baghdad. When badges expired that authorized Mithal and
his wife to enter the heavily fortified Green Zone where their home was
located, the Iraqi government refused to renew them. And just last month, on
orders from the office of Prime Minister Maliki, Mithal received an eviction
notice, informing him that his home -- assigned in the wake of the 2004
terrorist attack that took his sons -- was being re-claimed by the
Exposed and vulnerable, under constant threat of assassination by
Iranian-backed militias and Al Qaeda terrorists, Mithal was forced to leave
Baghdad in 2011. At the invitation of Masoud Barzani, President of the
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mithal took up residence in northern Iraq,
where his party had long maintained an active presence.
It wasn't the first time Barzani had come to Mithal's defense. In
the middle of the furor over his 2008 trip to Israel, when Iraq's other
political leaders were running for the hills, Barzani offered to dispatch
Kurdish security guards to ensure Mithal's protection. Nor was Mithal the first
Iraqi to seek internal exile in Kurdistan. Indeed, thousands have found refuge
there, seeking to take advantage of the region's greater sense of security,
prosperity, and personal freedom.
To my mind, standing up for Mithal Alusi and the Kurds should be
an easy call for the United States. In a Middle East caught in transition
between an autocratic past and a rising tide of Islamist fanaticism, true
friends are hard to find. Mithal and the Kurds are the real deal --
unapologetically pro-American, determined to resist the Iranian threat, and
aware that Iraq's fate ultimately depends on its ability to forge a genuinely
civil state that fairly reflects the country's diversity and assures the rights
of all its citizens.
Alusi, for sure, is but one individual, a solitary politician now
deep in the political wilderness. Ignoring him might be the path of least
resistance, but it would be a shortsighted calculation. Keeping faith with
those in distant lands who -- against all odds and at great personal sacrifice
-- have tirelessly stood vigil on behalf of our common values has almost always
redounded to America's long-term benefit. Maintaining a sustained strategy
toward democratic dissidents is no mere sentimentality, but an essential element
of the ground game for building the kind of soft power that can help fell
empires -- see Sakharov, Andrei; Sharansky, Natan; Walesa, Lech; or Havel,
Vaclav. And the costs of doing so are relatively trivial. U.S. officials that
travel to Kurdistan should call on Alusi. Vice President Biden could phone him.
And when President Obama next speaks with Prime Minister Maliki, he might
mention America's concern for the wellbeing of Alusi and others who have been
forced to flee Baghdad on account of their beliefs.
Of course, the strategic case for bolstering relations with the
KRG is much more straightforward. Even a casual observer of world affairs might
have noticed that there is something of a Kurdish Awakening afoot across the
region, one that has real potential over the next several years to transform
not just the politics, but in some cases even the geography, of southwest Asia.
And the epicenter for this movement is in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG is now without question an
emerging power of substantial influence, whose policy decisions could have
far-reaching consequences for the future of not only Iraq, but Syria, Turkey,
and Iran as well -- all key regional powers where Kurdish minorities are large
and U.S. interests run deep.
What else? The KRG is on the cusp of becoming a major producer of
oil and gas, and has recently inked deals to partner with the world's most
powerful energy companies, including Exxon, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom. It
possesses hardened security and intelligence forces that have worked
hand-in-glove with their U.S. counterparts for almost a decade to fight Al
Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while keeping tabs on the nefarious
activities of the Iranian IRGC. The Kurds are building a strategic relationship
with our NATO ally, Turkey, grounded in economics, but rapidly expanding to
include coordinated efforts to address the crisis in Syria, deal with PKK
terrorism, and contain the growing threat that Iran poses, not just to Iraq's
independence, but across the broader region.
Building as much U.S. leverage and influence as possible with the
KRG, as the centerpiece of what should be a broader strategy toward the overall
Kurdish Awakening, seems like a no-brainer -- especially if done in close
consultation with Turkey. All the more
so since we are pushing on an open door, with the Kurds still hungry to knit as
close a relationship with the United States as possible.
Some have argued that we should keep our distance from the KRG
for fear of alienating Prime Minister Maliki. Others complain that the KRG
itself is too marred by corruption, nepotism, and human rights shortcomings to
warrant close relations with the U.S. In this debate, however, I'll take my
counsel from Alusi. Mithal takes a back seat to no one in recognizing the need
for continued KRG reform. He believes that it must be an essential part of the
overall U.S. agenda with Erbil. But he -- perhaps better than most -- also
understands the vital distinction between friends and enemies, and the
imperative of dealing with the former much differently than you do the latter
-- on the basis of trust, respect, appropriate humility, and quiet, but firm,
pressure applied over time.
With a strong frame of comparison from his years in Baghad,
Mithal puts an enormous premium on what President Barzani, Masrour Barzani (the
KRG's intelligence chief and recently-appointed director of national security),
and other Kurdish officials have achieved in maintaining a sustained sense of
stability and safety in the north. The contrast with the rest of Iraq could not
be greater. One remarkable statistic: Since 2003, Iraq on average has
experienced more terrorist attacks per day than Kurdistan has suffered in two
That's not an accident. It's not luck. It's a huge accomplishment
that no one should take for granted. Terrorists of every stripe, including ones
backed by Iran, are hard at work attempting to disrupt the region's
tranquility. And they have consistently failed because of the success,
competence, and professionalism of Kurdish forces in neutralizing them -- in
strong cooperation with the United States.
And that achievement on security, of course, has underwritten
every other positive development that the region has experienced: a rapidly
growing economy, tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment, expanding
interactions with the outside world, and a degree of normalcy and freedom in
the personal lives of its inhabitants that is the envy of the rest of Iraq.
There clearly remains much to do to address the legitimate political, economic,
and social needs of the Kurdish people, but -- as Alusi strongly advises --
that task will be pursued most successfully in a spirit of deepening
friendship, not animosity, that fully appreciates and jealously protects the enormous
gains that have already been made.
As for Maliki's reaction, Alusi -- a staunch opponent of Kurdish
separatism -- is convinced that the stronger the partnership between the U.S.
and the KRG, the greater the leverage America will have in Baghdad. "Maliki
currently pays no price for ignoring U.S. interests and catering to Iran,"
Mithal notes. "If he feels the United States can affect his political position
by supporting parties in Baghdad that are resisting the most troublesome parts
of his agenda, he will finally be forced to take American concerns seriously."
Mithal is also certain that the stronger the KRG's position in Baghdad, the
stronger the voice will be of all those, like himself, pushing on behalf of a
unified, democratic, federal Iraq, with a government constrained by meaningful
checks and balances.
As President Obama watches his much-trumpeted Muslim outreach
literally crash and burn on streets across the Arab world this week, one hopes
he's capable of adjusting an approach that many have long feared will
eventually reap a bitter harvest of escalating contempt, instability, and
chaos. Just as charity begins at home, diplomacy begins with reliable friends
-- making them, keeping them, and standing by them when times get tough. A
storm is surely brewing in the Middle East and the U.S. will need to rally all
the allies it can get, and fast, to navigate the rough waters ahead. In Iraq,
at least, Mithal Al-Alusi and the KRG are standing by, just waiting for America
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images