Nationalist rhetoric is a staple of Iraqi Kurdish president Masud Barzani's speeches and declarations. In 2006, he told an American journalist, "Having an independent state is the natural legitimate right of our people." In January 2012, he told the BBC, "What I really wish is to see an independent Kurdistan." Against the backdrop of a political crisis with Baghdad, Barzani suggested a declaration of Kurdish independence could be imminent. "Power-sharing and partnership between Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and others is now completely non-existent and has become meaningless," Barzani said during his Nowruz address last March. "It is time to say enough is enough," he continued. "I call on all Iraqi political leaders to urgently try and find a solution otherwise we will return to our people and will decide on whatever course of action that our people deem appropriate." Implicit in Barzani's statement is the fact that, when polled, Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly favor independence.
The Kurdish people may embrace Kurdish nationalism but, despite his rhetoric, it is doubtful Masud Barzani does. Following his Nowruz address, Barzani traveled to Washington. Rather than show himself as president of Iraqi Kurdistan, he chose to bring his son and nephew into meetings, thereby showing himself to be concerned more with family. After the White House rebuffed his position on Kurdish claims to Iraq's disputed territories, Barzani spent the rest of his trip promoting personal business.
Barzani's behavior is the rule rather than the exception. However he might depict himself in Kurdistan, Masud Barzani is not known in Washington for nationalism. Just one year ago, on October 28, 2011, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified the U.S. Congress of an impending sale to Turkey of three AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters. The notification kicked in a 15-day period in which Congressional objections could block the transfer of the military equipment to Turkey. Rather than speak up, Barzani remained silent. Neither he nor the Kurdistan Regional Government representatives in Washington asked the White House or Congress to block the sale. Two months later, the Turks slaughtered at least 34 unarmed Kurds in the Roboski Massacre.
While Barzani is silent in the face of Turkish arms purchases, he has criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to purchase advanced aircraft from the United States and, more recently, weaponry from Russia and the Czech Republic. Once again, however, Barzani's rhetoric rings hollow. After all, Hoshyar Zebari, Barzani's uncle and Iraq's Foreign Minister, traveled with Maliki to Moscow and helped negotiate the agreement. So too did Khairallah Hassan Babaker, Iraq's Minister of Trade and a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Kurds may want a state, but Barzani's actions suggest he does not. Barzani has yet to demand Turkish forces end their occupation of Amadia, Kani Masi, and other towns in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps Barzani's silence is understandable; to speak up might make his attendance at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's party conference awkward. Antagonizing Erdoğan might also complicate efforts to strike deals with Çalik Holdings, the Turkish firm whose chief executive officer is Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan's son-in-law.
Both during my recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan and in the United States, Kurds often ask whether the United States would ever support Kurdish independence. That question is premature. After all, why would the U.S. government support Kurdish independence when Masud Barzani's actions show he does not?