If the Kurds are to Prosper They Must Become Democratic

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Baghdad — It's a time of introspection in Iraqi Kurdistan now.

Kurds were jubilant in the wake of the September 25 referendum in which the majority voted for independence.

The results were actually far more complicated, however, as the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani's Christine van den Toorn shows.

The fact of the matter, however, is the Kurds should not have been surprised. The United States seldom gives green lights, but with regard to the referendum, the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and CIA gave a huge, flashing red light. So too did the United Nations, Turkey, Iran, and European Union.

That the peshmerga largely surrendered without a fight also is not a surprise.

The reality is that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) misread and mismanaged the situation.

As many Kurds, however, attest — first in whispers and now with increasing volume — the KRG has long mismanaged Iraqi Kurdistan itself. What once was a thriving economy has ground to a halt. While KRG officials can blame Baghdad for failing to deliver the 17 percent of Iraq's revenues constitutionally owed to Kurdistan, the situation is more complicated.

(The basic dispute revolves around whether KRG oil exports should be added to, and Baghdad expenses deducted from, the central kitty before distribution.)

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A boy rides a bicycle flying the Iraqi national flag past a wall mural depicting the Kurdish flag in the area of Dibs, west of Kirkuk on October 17, 2017. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty

Regardless, the KRG has not reformed a system in which more than 70 percent of the budget goes to salaries nor has it accounted fully for the money it did raise through customs and by exporting oil on its own. Profligate spending on the part of KRG officials — from all parties — is just the icing on the cake.

The Kurds overwhelmingly want freedom, democracy, and good governance. But, as the Kurds know better than most, freedom can never be taken for granted.

They freed themselves from Saddam Hussein only to be saddled with a political leader who seems to have internalized Saddam's philosophy of governance. Masoud Barzani's term in office expired two years ago. He is, at best, a de facto president.

To suggest, as some of his supporters do, that he is indispensable means that after a quarter century of autonomy the Kurds have failed to develop a professional managerial class.

Fortunately, that is false: The talent I saw as a university lecturer 17 years ago in Kurdistan was immense, and the talent I have witnessed on every trip back to the region confirms my initial impressions.

So, here's the question: Against the shock of the past week, will the Kurds hold their leadership to account? Will there be a Kurdish Spring? Will Kurdish peshmerga and party functionaries continue to put receiving scraps of patronage from political bosses above the health of their region?

Will they accept a leadership that lives in palaces on a mountain miles away from the capital city and refuses to mix with their citizenry in any real way?

Or will there be a Kurdish Fall?

Rumors now swirl that Barzani will resign in favor of his son, Masrour, and then organize crowds to "spontaneously" demand his return. He might think that would allow him to claim a popular mandate, but it would be a very dangerous game.

Another Iraqi leader once did something similar, and it drove the entirety of Iraq into disaster. Regardless of whether such rumors are true, it's time for real democracy and accountability in the region. Kurds are ready.

It's decision time not only for the KRG but for Iraqi Kurds more broadly.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.