Good friends are hard to find: Why the U.S. should support Mithal Alusi and Kurdistan

FOREIGN POLICY  –  John Hannah Friday, September 14, 2012 – 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 parliamentary elections.

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 government.

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 decades.

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 to call.