In dealing with Iraq, the U.S. and its allies would benefit from drawing on an important axiom of economics, that of “sunk costs.” It suggests that contrary to common intuition, how much you have invested in a property (or policy) in the past should not affect your decisions about future investments. The decisive question is whether the property is currently in good shape, or is falling apart. It makes no sense to invest in a sinking Titanic, however much it cost to build.
U.S. President Barack Obama and many others are moved by the huge sacrifices in life, money and political capital that were made in Iraq. Obama hopes that one more investment will finally make Iraq into a functioning nation and ally. He demands that Iraq’s next government be formed in a way that Sunnis will feel “connected to and well served.” However, the sectarian divisions in Iraq run deep. The various ethnic and confessional groups were put together ad hoc by colonial powers and never formed a true national community. Iran is pulling the Shia population in one direction and Saudi Arabia is pulling the Sunnis in a different one, while the Kurds have long sought to go their own way. The notion that a more inclusive government will make the Sunnis and Kurds feel “connected,” to the point that they will settle their differences with ballots rather than bullets is a very attractive one, but one that is extremely unlikely to come about.
Meanwhile, in order to shore up this very long bet, Obama has refrained from picking a more reliable answer: supporting the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds are not asking for American boots on the ground, but for arms and equipment, including “tanks, sniper equipment, armored personnel carriers, artillery and ammunition, […] body armour, helmets, fuel trucks and ambulances,” as well as the opportunity to finance their militia and government with the sale of oil. While the U.S. began providing air support and some unspecified arms transfers to Kurdish forces in early August, it has firmly opposed the Kurds’ desire to sell oil independently of the Iraqi government, with a U.S. judge ruling in late July that Kurdish oil off the coast of Texas should be sent back to Iraq. The U.S. has been reluctant to support Kurdish independence in Iraq, for fear of undermining the Iraqi state and its central government.
There are many reasons to support the Kurdish requests. First, in sharp contrast to the conflict in Syria and others in Iraq, Libya, and Sudan, in which the U.S. has had a hard time separating the “good” (moderate, reliable, pro-Western) from the “bad” combatants, the Kurds are a reliable partner while ISIS and its Sunni allies are among its fiercest enemies. The Iraqi Kurds are solidly pro-West, stable, democratic, and protective of Christian and Yazidi minorities. Kurdistan was the one part of Iraq where the U.S. suffered very few casualties following the invasion in 2003, and people largely lived in peace. In short, Kurds have surely earned Western support.
If Kurdistan gains independence, it would be one of the very few nations in the Middle East that the U.S. could rely on to both be strongly supportive of its policies and stable. Its proximity to Iran makes Kurdistan a strategic place for locating drones, intelligence gathering, and other U.S. bases. Nor is there much reason for the U.S. to be troubled if, as a result of Iraqi Kurdish independence, the Kurds in Syria and Iran would seek to join the Iraqi ones. As for Turkey, it seems increasingly reconciled to the possibility of an independent Kurdistan next door, and to granting more autonomy to Kurds in its own land. Indeed, redrawing borders imposed by the West many years ago, in line with the preferences of the local people, is now a traditionally Western notion.
Granted, the government in Baghdad is opposed to such moves. However, this is not sufficient reason for the U.S. to withhold support from Kurdistan, given the moral and strategic reasons already outlined. Indeed, if as a result, the new government in Iraq would be more inclined to work out the differences between the remaining sectarian groups in Iraq, above all with the Sunnis, the West could achieve a double victory; a reliable ally in Kurdistan, and a somewhat less conflict-prone, albeit smaller, Iraq.
Amitai Etzioni is author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World