Small Wars Journal

The Soft Power Outage

The Soft Power Outage

President Obama wishes to restore America’s diplomatic voice in the world.  In the Kurdish region, the silence is deafening.  

Shwan Kanan and Jonathan Dworkin

William Safire wrote that a good way to read news is to look “halfway down the column,” where the real news – the shocking or scandalous bit - is buried like a murdered corpse in the story.  An example can be found in a January Washington Post article on the Syrian peace talks.  In paragraph six Liz Sly informed us that it was the Russians – not the United States – who insisted on the inclusion of Syria’s Kurds in UN peace talks.  This comment, which largely went unnoticed, is the real news in the story.  The Obama Administration is arming the Kurdish minority in Syria while simultaneously supporting its exclusion from peace talks.  Machiavelli would blush.

The duplicitous approach to the Kurds – arming them while isolating them – is a consistent theme of Obama’s presidency.  The Kurds were excluded from anti-ISIS conferences in London and Paris, as well as Syrian opposition talks in Riyadh.  Hillary Clinton’s failed effort to organize a moderate Arab opposition in Syria became intertwined with the effort to sideline Kurds.  In addition to these diplomatic rebuttals the Iraqi Kurds had to overcome the State Department’s sabotage of their economy, which happened before oil prices dropped.  Kurdish students and businessmen continue to experience unexplained delays related to travel visas, despite the region’s status as a stalwart American ally since 1991.

We recently assisted Kurdish doctors in Sulaimania who are caring for injured Peshmerga.  The situation there is notable for the lack of American involvement.  To take one example, the United States military publishes a handbook on best methods for dealing with war injuries.  Over decades America has pioneered the art of battlefield stabilization, triage, and evacuation of wounded soldiers.  We found that none of this expertise has been transferred to Shorsh Hospital, the facility in Sulaimania that cares for wounded Peshmerga soldiers.  Left entirely alone, doctors at Shorsh have created their own system to deal with casualties.  The director of operations at Shorsh, who is friendly to Americans, has received no help from the U.S. military.  This is part of a pattern of ignoring Peshmerga healthcare that has been noted in other provinces.

In numerous conversations we had in hospitals, the bazaar, and coffee shops, American detachment is a recurring theme.  There is no U.S. diplomatic presence in the city, despite its status as a provincial capital, base of operations for the Peshmerga, and host location for hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees.  This disinterest in the Kurdish region is not new.  What has changed is that the region, long dependent on oil sales for revenue, has been crippled by low oil prices.  Responsible both for mobilizing the ground war against ISIS and sheltering millions of its victims, Kurds are now unable to pay their bills or provide basic services for their population.

The Kurdish Ministry of Health is at the center of the crisis.  Physician salaries have gone unpaid for months at a time.  Older physicians are working on the side to scrape by, but younger doctors don’t have that option. They’re increasingly impoverished, and they’re threatening to strike.  Likewise the quality of healthcare itself is deteriorating with the financial crush.  Hallway sweeping has become a luxury in the hospitals.  Problems with multi-drug resistant bacteria are becoming common, and there are no resources to deal with it.  Hospitals like Shorsh rely on charity and the patriotism of the staff.

The American diplomatic presence in the Kurdish region is centered in the consulate in Erbil.  We have met some of these State Department workers.  They have an immensely difficult job, and they are handcuffed by bureaucratic procedure imposed on them from thousands of miles away.  Security concerns after Benghazi make it difficult for them to post people outside the consulate, which in turn makes it impossible to maintain a presence in multiple areas.  State Department staffers are also working on limited tours, and diplomatic officers rarely focus on one place throughout their careers.  These are aspects of the State Department culture and unfortunately, they are designed to promote American talking points rather than to build effective relationships with Kurds or other Iraqis.

Given these limitations American diplomats have chosen to triage their responsibilities, which they see as coordinating military aid to the Peshmerga and assisting aid flow to refugees.  Without doubt that’s the appropriate decision.  Left out of the equation, however, is the Kurdish government, which is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with multiple emergencies.  Reforming the diplomatic presence in the area - and in particular putting people on the ground that have the knowledge and authority to boost friends and solve problems – is the pre-requisite for a genuine soft power policy in the region.

The contrary tendency unfortunately is the prevalent one.  Speaking with American diplomats, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans and Kurds are talking past one another.  American silence about the Barzani presidency may be intended as a show of respect for sovereignty, but it is interpreted as an endorsement of dictatorship.  Visa delays may result from an overly bureaucratic security procedure, but they are taken as evidence that Americans do not trust or respect Kurds.  The American desire to promote tolerance and multiculturalism is admirable in the American context, but in Iraq, where Kurdish people are being murdered by their neighbors on ethnic and religious grounds, it comes across at best as naïve and at worst as cynical.  The Kurdish view of these matters should be taken seriously.  American officials are barricaded in fortified compounds and straight jacketed by talking points that are best suited to a Model UN conference.  They are ill prepared to forward American interests in the Kurdish region. 

The conceit of soft power, which Obama has endorsed as his approach, is that the appeal of American values will make military power less necessary.  The irony in Kurdistan is that Obama’s actual policy is focused only on armies and (to a lesser extent) on refugees.  The inattention to non-military aspects of American power has consequences.  The lack of technical relationships leads to ignorance.  When events deteriorate, the United States is unprepared.  If the Kurdish government collapses, it may mean losing the alliance as Kurds seek alternative partners.  Iran, positioned across the border and benefiting from its economic revival, could buy a controlling stake in Sulaimania province at a bargain discount.  Some Kurds argue this has already happened.  Rather than becoming independent, as they dream, Kurds are in danger of being carved up into fiefdoms by hostile neighbors.  This in turn threatens America’s goal of a less dangerous Middle East, because the Kurds – in particular Kurdish women - have demonstrated a far more consistent interest in pluralism than any other American partner.  The biggest loser in Kurdistan’s disintegration, aside from the Kurds themselves, is the United States.