Kurds, taking the fight to the jihadists. Photographer: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Kurds, taking the fight to the jihadists. Photographer: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

The Kurdish people, members of the largest stateless nation in the world, have dreamed of independence for 100 years. President Barack Obama could be the man who delivers them to freedom. The ruinous conflict between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Arabs means that Iraq as we know it is finished. The Kurds, historically the victims of Arab domination (the Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein committed terrible acts of genocide against them), will eventually be free. Obama could put the U.S. on the right side of history -- and the right side of justice -- by expediting their liberation.

To do so, Obama would have to take the sort of risk he has implicitly promised not to take in global affairs. He would have to defy decades of received American foreign-policy wisdom about the way the Middle East should be organized. And he would have to resist the knee-jerk Westphalian urge to preserve the borders of nation-states for the sake of (often chimerical and sometimes amoral) stability.

But if Obama is interested in grappling with the reality of the Middle East; if he is interested in pursuing justice on behalf of oppressed people; and if he is interested in midwifing a nation that will be a strong ally of the U.S. and a vigorous opponent of Islamist terror -- then he will reconsider the U.S.’s Baghdad-centered policies and align himself with the Kurds' aspirations.

The Kurdish state that will ultimately emerge from the wreckage of Iraq will not encompass the whole of Kurdistan, which includes parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran. But the Kurds, who have been playing a very long game, understand that an independent Kurdistan in part of their ancient homeland -- the part now within the borders of Iraq -- will satisfy many of their needs as a nation, and serve as a center of Kurdish culture and politics. It could also prove to the three states that control the rest of Kurdistan that the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will not undermine their own strength and independence.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the Kurds, who make up as much as 20 percent of Iraq’s population, should be advancing the cause of Iraqi national reconciliation. “This is a very critical time for Iraq, and the government formation challenge is the central challenge that we face,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week on a visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Iraq's leaders must “produce the broad-based, inclusive government that all the Iraqis I have talked to are demanding.”

Kerry might be talking to the wrong Iraqis. The Kurdish Iraqis I talk to see this moment as a turning point in the history of their people, when the lie that is Iraq -- a country cobbled together by the British and French 100 years ago in way that institutionalized discrimination against the non-Arab Kurds by the majority Arab population -- is finally being exposed. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told Kerry, carefully, but tellingly, that, “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.” (Barzani has become less careful, now telling the the BBC of plans to hold a referendum on independence.)

Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdish region and the former deputy prime minister of Iraq, told me the other day that Iraq may be beyond the point of no return, whether or not the Kurds push this as a cause. “No doubt every Kurd wants an independent Kurdistan, but we have made a deliberate decision to work within a democratic federal Iraq. Undeniably, the prospects of this federal Iraq are fading fast.”

He also noted a certain irony in recent events. “The Kurdish leadership has proven not to be the agent of division of Iraq. Rather, sectarian strife is dissolving the Iraqi union.” Salih, one of Iraq’s most visionary leaders, may be a contender for Iraq’s presidency, if the country manages to hold itself together in some form. When I asked him what form that may turn out to be, he said, “I think the idea of a centralized Iraq is over. At a minimum, we will witness significant devolution of power.”

For two decades, the Kurds have shown themselves to be the most mature and responsible entity in Iraqi politics, which is one reason American officials are panicked by the thought of their permanent departure. A Kurdish exit will promote instability, the thinking goes. But what the region has now isn’t stability. What's there, among other things, is an institutionalized injustice, an injustice at times exacerbated by U.S. policy.

Kurdish independence has had American advocates. Shortly after World War I, President Woodrow Wilson promised the Kurds, along with other ethnic groups left adrift by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a large measure of autonomy. But others among the great powers of the day quickly undermined Wilson’s vision. In the 1970s, Iraqi Kurds were allied with the Shah of Iran, and so became an American friend as well. The U.S. supplied weapons to the Kurds, who were rebelling at the time against rule by Baghdad. But the U.S. betrayed the Kurds by encouraging a secret deal between the Iraqis and the Shah. The U.S. betrayed the Kurds again in 1991, after the first Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush encouraged a rebellion by Kurds and Shiites, but then ignored them, leading to the murder of thousands by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Still, out of this betrayal came the Kurdish safe haven, protected by a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone.

This U.S.-created safe haven will be remembered as the nucleus of a future Kurdish nation. The Kurdish leadership is far from perfect; corruption is a serious problem, and Kurdish parties are incompletely committed to democratic ideals. But the Kurdish autonomous zone is Switzerland compared to the rest of Iraq, and the rest of the neighborhood.

In the 1980s, as the Baathist regime was carrying out the large-scale gassing of Iraq’s Kurds, Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who commanded the genocidal campaign, spoke about his plans. Al-Majid, who became known as “Chemical Ali,” was captured on tape saying, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? F-- them! The international community and those who listen to them.”

It is way past time for the international community to listen to the Kurds and help them reach their legitimate national aspirations.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.