It is not for nothing that President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel and Jordan is described with concern from Beirut to London as nothing more than political tourism.
“Even those well-disposed towards Obama say he’ll be coming to Israel as a tourist, seeing the key sights and shaking a few hands, with no initiative to launch, no plan to unveil,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. Elsewhere, American officials seem busy lowering the expectations on concrete steps.
No matter how substantiated the arguments behind the current choices of the US’s regional policy, it would not be far-sighted to foresee worrisome consequences of the passivity, which may be visible sooner rather than later.
It is bound to have an impact not only on Palestine and an increasingly restive Egypt but also on the escalating developments in Syria, whose crisis now is spilling more and more over into Jordan and Lebanon. On the third front looms Iraq, where incurable disagreements are arising between Kurds and the central government of Nouri al-Maliki. The visit marks a time of extraordinary discord between the American administration and the governments of Israel and Turkey, not to mention Egypt. It also marks a period of time in which that administration displays indifference to pregnant changes in such a critical geography.
Let us leave the Israeli visit aside for the moment and ask: How will Ankara and Washington’s disagreement over Iraq affect the ongoing — and so far positively developing — negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? Where does the US really stand regarding attempts by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to further break away from Baghdad? What sort of link is there, if any, between its Iran policy and the Iraqi Kurds, who are already vulnerable prey for Tehran?
As elsewhere in the region, there is something that does not add up in the White House’s positioning. “This land of 5 million people [Iraqi Kurdistan] is seen by Washington as something of a distraction, undermining its official ‘one Iraq’ policy. And the Baghdad regime of Nouri al-Maliki, the beneficiary of that policy, is doing all in its power to ensure matters stay that way,” wrote Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of the Defense Department and a prominent Republican, in the National Interest after a recent visit to Arbil.
Here are some points he raises that further stress the questions I posed above:
“In contrast to its raw relations with Baghdad, the KRG has managed to preserve a fine balancing act between its Turkish and Iranian neighbors. Turkey’s political and economic influence continues to grow, especially in Erbil, but its economic activity consists mainly of contracted projects, notably construction, rather than investment.
“At the same time, the Kurds are strong supporters of [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s negotiations with jailed PKK leader [Abdullah] Öcalan to resolve Turkey’s long-standing conflict with that Kurdish rebel group. The Kurds are convinced that a Turkish settlement with the PKK will result in an influx of Turkish investment funds into their region.
“Despite the friction with Baghdad, and in contrast to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is both peaceful and relatively prosperous. It is, in fact, an island of stability. Yet the [US] State Department applies the same travel advisory for Kurdistan as for the rest of Iraq, with the result that many investors have shied away from the region. It is as if Kurdistan is being penalized for sectarian tensions that are constantly flaring up in the rest of Iraq. Washington’s bias could not be more obvious.
“Washington’s support for the increasingly dictatorial Maliki makes little sense. He has backed Assad in Syria, and has positioned his country squarely within Tehran’s orbit. It is not clear that he views the United States as much more than a source of arms…
“Washington should take a second look at its policy toward Kurdistan. Betting on Maliki at the expense of the Kurds is unlikely to pay off in the long run, or, for that matter, in the short run.”
So, as Obama prepares for his visit, we can ask once more: What does his administration expect to happen amidst a “no-show” of regional policy?