On April 2, two of the main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. The two parties are often at odds with one another, but it appears that with the battle for Mosul entering its bitter end, and after nearly three years of continuous war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Iraqi Kurds believe that the time is right to cash in their hard-won political chips.
Kurdistan’s leaders know that independence will not come easy. In particular, Turkey and Iran are bound to try to block such efforts given their concerns about their own Kurdish populations’ aspirations. The United States, meanwhile, has historically shunned the idea of breaking apart the Iraqi state out of fear of setting a precedent for secessionism throughout the region. Even intra-Kurdish disputes over the timing and process of separation have limited the Kurds’ independence aspirations. As such, Kurdish officials have positioned the referendum as a declaration of intent, with true independence still some time away.
And this isn’t even the first time such a declaration has been made. But something is different this time around, and it gives Iraqi Kurds greater optimism that their path to independence may ultimately succeed. That difference is U.S. President Donald Trump.
On a recent trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I spoke with numerous politicians, officials, and businessmen who believe that the Trump presidency has created new opportunities for Kurdish independence. The Kurdish public, moreover, has been generally optimistic about Trump since his election. Yet the aspects of the Trump presidency that most excite Iraqi Kurds are the same ones that have U.S. foreign policy experts most concerned.
A FOREIGN POLICY RESET?
First, Trump is sidelining the traditional U.S. foreign policy establishment. Since January, the White House has actively sought to reduce the influence of experienced foreign policy figures by devaluing career State Department officials Republican experts. The State Department is “already running on fumes” and has been without top officials for months. Its gutting is a frightful prospect for specialists on both sides of the aisle because the department and its staff have traditionally served as a bedrock of continuity in the United States’ engagement with the world. In short, the maintenance of an “establishment” has assured that institutional knowledge about states, regions, leaders, and relations—often collected, developed, and curated over decades—is not lost when a new administration takes office.
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