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Trump Throws the Kurds to the Wolves

The one part of Iraq that was considered an unalloyed success until now is going to hell, and it’s partly Donald Trump’s fault.

Last month, voters in the Kurdish autonomous region chose overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq, which they’ve wanted to do since the day the country was forged in the ashes of the British Empire in Mesopotamia, and Israel was the only country in the entire world to support them. The United States said no. Europe said no. NATO said no. The hostile regimes in Iran, Syria, and Turkey said hell no, of course, as did Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

Turkey closed the border and said the Kurds of Iraq will surrender or starve. Iran closed the border. Iraq sent in troops and grounded all flights into and out of Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airports.

Then Iranian-backed militias moved into the city of Kirkuk and clashed with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson engaged in an excruciating display of both-siderism, as if fighting had just broken out between Britain and France rather than between America’s best friends in the region and its worst enemy.

“We are concerned and a bit sad,” Tillerson said. “We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Erbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion.”

Najmaldin Karim, the democratically elected governor of Kirkuk Goverornate, fled in the night to escape the wrath of Iranian militias. “If I go back,” he told Eli Lake at Bloomberg, “my life is in danger. Even the night when all this happened, I had to maneuver carefully to go to safety.”

Iraq’s central government is not an enemy of the United States, but it’s not a friend either. It is aligned with Iran, and its so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, with its flag that riffs on the Hezbollah logo, includes militias explicitly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the patron and armorer of terrorist organizations stretching from Beirut through Damascus to Baghdad. As Michael Weiss aptly put it at CNN, “Nothing better illustrates the incoherence of America's stance in the Middle East than the fact that it turned out to be on the same side as Major General Qasem Soleimani, who occupies a status within US intelligence circles somewhere between Professor Moriarty and Darth Vader.”

Conservatives howled when President Barack Obama gave air cover to Iranian-backed militias in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. They had a point, since Iran is an avowed enemy of the United States. The Obama administration had a point too, though, of course, since ISIS, and not Iran, was busy massacring people all over the world, including in Europe and the United States. One could argue that a rising nuclear power like Iran is ultimately more dangerous than a bunch of yahoos in the desert riding around in pickup trucks even if they can also manage to shoot people by the dozens in places like Orlando and Paris. One could just as easily argue in favor of dealing with ISIS first and Iran second, since ISIS posed the most immediate threat that would only grow—and quickly—if its “caliphate” were allowed to stand unresisted. Even indirectly cooperating with one enemy against another is inherently controversial, inherently risky. It is also defensible, at times the best of bad options. A cogent case for each side of that argument can be made by the sharpest foreign policy minds in the world.

What’s never wise or defensible is siding with an enemy against an ally. Ostensibly, the Trump administration is playing the part of a neutral actor between Baghdad and Erbil. The problem with both-siderism, though, is that it implicitly favors the stronger side. How could it not? If one side is in the process of steamrolling the other, you’re at least tacitly accepting the final inevitable outcome if you stand aside and do nothing.

Barack Obama never backed Iranian militias against the Kurds of Iraq or stood neutral between them. He never took anyone’s side against the Kurds of Iraq. On the contrary, the United States entered the war against ISIS in Iraq on Obama’s watch at the precise moment ISIS declared war against Iraq’s Kurds.

The Kurds of Iraq absolutely, and for very good reasons, saw both the Bush and Obama administrations as their friends and allies, but Donald Trump is selling out and alienating the most pro-American people in the entire Middle East, first by banning them from even entering the United States, and now with this. For the first time in the history of the world, Kurdish people are protesting the United States, in Iraq’s Kurdish capital of Erbil and also in Nashville, Tennessee, where a large number of Kurdish-Americans live.

Foreign policy is hard work, and it’s often not easy to thread the needle between American values and American interests. Most of us are old enough to remember, though, when rewarding friends and punishing enemies was a no-brainer.

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