Kurd Sellout Watch, Day 60

Listening for the “F” word.

Whenever a Kurd wants to measure the depth of some foreign leader’s commitment to Kurdish autonomy, he listens for one particular word. That word is “federal.” Anyone who will say he favors Kurdish federalism can be counted a friend of the Kurds. Federalism is a slightly risky concept to embrace, because it means different things to different people. To Kurdish leaders and American diplomats, federalism means “autonomy within the context of a larger Iraqi state.” To the Kurdish rank and file, and to the bordering nations of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which contain significant Kurdish populations, federalism means “nationhood” and, possibly, “similar demands from our own Kurds.” It isn’t yet clear whether Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations will accept Kurdish federalism in either sense of the word. A politician willing to say that he favors a federal solution for the Kurds is understood by politically sophisticated Kurds to be saying, “I favor at least some autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan, and possibly, down the road, an independent Kurdish state.”

Knowing all this will help you understand why the Kurdistan Observer whittled down an April 30 article about the Kurds from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to two paragraphs about Jay Garner’s refusal to say the word “federal.” Here is Garner’s self-justification:

I spent the last two days with [Kurdish leaders Jalal] Talabani and [Mas’ud] Barzani, and they never used that term one time. … They both talked about a democratic process and that they were going to have a democracy, which was a mosaic of all of Iraq, [which] would include all the ethnic groups, [which] would include the tribes, [which] would include the cultures, [which] would include the religions, [which] would include the professions. [But] they never mentioned federalism one time.

Does this constitute a change in U.S. policy? In a March 6 press conference, President Bush used a variant of the “F” word to describe the post-Saddam future in Iraq. (“Iraq will provide a place where people can see that the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds can get along in a federation.”) Now Garner won’t do the same. Does that mean the United States has dealt away some of the Kurds’ promised autonomy?

Probably not, says Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (i.e. the government for the half of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Chatterbox spoke by telephone this morning with Salih, who was in Cairo. “I think probably at this stage I would not expect them … to push [federalism] explicitly,” Salih said. He did allow, however, that he would rather hear Garner and other American officials speak of “federal democracy in Iraq.”

Salih has adopted the canny line that for Iraq, federalism would mean essentially the same thing it means in the United States, where states enjoy “a considerable degree of self-government” and “issues of national defense and foreign policy and fiscal policy” are handled by the national government. As in the United States, the divisions would be based on geography, not ethnicity (though clearly different ethnic groups predominate in different regions of Iraq). This is obviously the sort of rhetoric Salih hopes American leaders will embrace. He probably underestimates American diplomats’ skittishness about too obviously remaking Iraq in America’s image. But it’s easy to imagine that Bush, who is less careful about such things—we can’t even be sure that his earlier telegraphed message about a “federation” was deliberate—will like the way that sounds.

Kurd Sellout Watch Archive:
April 25, 2003: Day 54
April 23, 2003: Day 52
April 18, 2003: Day 47
April 10, 2003: Day 39
April 3, 2003: Day 32
March 26, 2003: Day 24
March 25, 2003: Day 23
March 23, 2003: Day 21
March 21, 2003: Day 19
March 20, 2003: Day 18
March 17, 2003: Day 15
March 14, 2003: Day 12
March 11, 2003: Day 9
March 6, 2003: Day 4
March 4, 2003: Day 2
March 3, 2003: “How Screwed Are the Kurds?”