Over the weekend, former national security advisor and retired Marine Gen. James Jones and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad were on CNN urging the United States to give the Kurds more weapons and more control over their proto-state in northern Iraq.
"I have had an email this morning from Kurdistan, and they need weapons," Jones said. "They need to be able to fight ISIS with the weapons that ISIS has, which is the weapons that they captured from us. The Kurds are our best friends in the region. We cannot let Kurdistan fall to ISIS. That would be a strategic disaster."
Khalilzad said the United States should continue to push Iraqis to come together to form a central government, but one that provides more autonomy to the Kurds.
"The only way to keep Iraq together is a kind of a confederal arrangement between Kurdistan and Baghdad, where Baghdad agrees that the Kurds could export oil, they could acquire their own weapons, they could control their own airspace," he said.
To those who follow the issue closely, Jones and Khalilzad’s TV appearance was a sign of the Kurds’ sophisticated and well-funded influence machine in Washington kicking into high gear. Both Jones and Khalilzad are longtime supporters of Iraqi Kurdistan who have also been involved in business dealings with the region.
With the Islamic State advancing and embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki locked in a political showdown with his rivals, advocates for the Kurds are pushing for greater autonomy from Baghdad, as well as for larger amounts of direct U.S. military support for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces struggling to hold the line against militants from the Islamic State.
To spread their message in Washington, Kurdish leaders have long maintained relationships with members of the media, the think tank and academic communities, politicians on Capitol Hill, and officials in and out of government. For the last several years, the Kurds have also retained a slew of lobbying firms, including Patton Boggs, to work on their behalf. The Kurdish Regional Government, which runs the Kurds’ proto-state in northern Iraq, spends at least $1 million a year on these efforts, according to documents filed with the Justice Department.
The lobby’s influence appeared to have paid off when the White House announced it would conduct airstrikes over Kurdish territory. The U.S. government has also begun fulfilling the Kurds’ long sought-after goal of direct U.S. military support, including the provision of much-needed weapons and ammunition. France also announced Wednesday that it, too, will begin providing arms to the Kurdish forces.
But some experts warn not to misread the situation. Kurdistan’s roster of high-powered lobbyists and high-profile public advocates has helped it gain American weaponry, but the influence campaign has yet to accomplish the Kurds’ primary goal: winning U.S. support for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. For the moment, that remains a bridge too far for the Obama administration, just as it did for the Bush administration before it.
"The United States is still prioritizing the territorial integrity of Iraq," said Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdistan at the National Defense University. "The lobby has done nothing to change that."
The Kurds have many powerful friends in Washington, but other experts say the administration’s expanding support comes in large part because of the White House’s belief that saving Kurdistan from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is in the genuine national security interest of the United States.
"This is not about lobbying or budgets or sympathy; it’s about cold, hard-nosed calculations about what the reality is on the ground in Iraq. That’s what’s driving U.S. policy in a brand-new direction, very actively in and sympathetic to the Kurds," said David Pollock, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Still, supporters of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, say the Obama administration’s quick reaction to the Islamic State’s rapid movement toward the Kurdish capital stems directly from the special relationship between Washington and the leaders of what is essentially an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
"In a relatively short period of time, the president who withdrew from Iraq has re-engaged in Iraq specifically to address a security concern in and around the Kurdistan region of Iraq," said an adviser to the KRG. "I think that is a testament to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s understanding of the U.S. system and its ability to try make certain that the U.S. government does well by it."
This means employing some of Washington’s top lobbyists. According to documents filed with the Justice Department, Greenberg Traurig, BGR, Slocum & Boddie, Qorvis Communications, and Patton Boggs all had contracts with the KRG in 2013.
Part of the lobbyists’ work is to engage with Capitol Hill, where there is a Kurdish-American Caucus with more than 50 members. It was founded in 2008 by Republican congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina and former Democratic congressman Lincoln Davis of Tennessee.
Lawmakers help organize events on the Hill, like the commemoration in March of the 26th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s brutal chemical attack on Halabja, which killed thousands of men, women, and children. Trips to the Kurdistan region have also been organized for members of Congress and their staff, including an April 2012 trip that included 10 staffers.
But Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute questioned the importance of the caucus, characterizing it as "a ragtag bunch of congressmen who put their name on a petition."
Instead, he and others say, the influence game is focused on former government officials from State, Defense, and the CIA, as well as former Democratic and Republican party officials.
"They’ve cultivated a lot of former generals and taken them over to Iraqi Kurdistan. Many former American officials have gotten gifts — the silk carpets — or have a direct interest in Kurdish oil fields, and if they themselves don’t have it, their wives do, so that it doesn’t appear as directly," said Rubin, a former Pentagon official, who’s been an outspoken critic of Kurdistan’s current political leadership.
As with many issues in Washington, there is an overlap between business and policy advocacy.
"If the Kurds didn’t have oil, I would say three-quarters of these lobbyists wouldn’t be there," Natali said.
Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is an outspoken advocate for the Kurds, but he’s also had ties to oil companies investing in the Kurdish region.
In a statement to Foreign Policy, Khalilzad said he is "a supporter of the Kurds as well as Sunnis and Shiites who support Iraqi democracy and oppose extremist or terrorist groups like [the Islamic State]."
He said he "advises companies interested in business opportunities throughout Iraq, including those interested in the Kurdish region."
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador and another outspoken advocate for the Kurds, was later discovered to have an enormous stake in one of Kurdistan’s oil fields via a Norwegian oil company. According to the New York Times, Galbraith said that "his actions were proper because he was at the time a private citizen deeply involved in Kurdish causes, both in business and policy." He now serves as a senior advisor at Khalilzad’s consulting company, Gryphon Partners.
Jones is another close friend of Kurdistan’s in Washington. He is the chief executive officer of the U.S.-Kurdistan Business Council, a trade association in charge of advocating for U.S. companies in the Kurdish region.
Jones notes that his work for the council has been and will continue to be pro bono.
"My relationship with the Kurds goes back 23 years," he said in a statement to Foreign Policy. "I have never received payment of any kind, from them or anyone else, in the support that I have willingly provided to their aspirations to live free from persecution. They are, by far, our best and most loyal friends in the immediate region, and our treatment of them has been very much to our discredit and to the detriment of our leadership."
The Kurdish lobby in Washington has been growing in size and sophistication for decades. In the years before the first Iraq War, Kurdish attempts to rally international support against Saddam Hussein were hindered, in part, by their inability to spend money on sophisticated lobbying efforts here. The Kurds sit atop some of Iraq’s richest oil reserves, but they were doubly hit by Hussein’s economic blockade as well as the U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
The Kurds had some weapons, though: an inspiring cause to support and a pair of effective spokesmen, Barham Salih and Najmaldin Karim.
Salih has been particularly important. He first came to Washington as a representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the country’s two political parties, in the 1990s. He left Washington around the time the Iraq War began, and in 2009 became the prime minister of the KRG. More recently, he was a runner-up to be the president of Iraq.
"Kurdish influence in Washington would be nothing if it weren’t for Barham Salih," Rubin said. "There’s hardly a columnist for the Washington Post or the New York Times who isn’t friendly with Barham."
Rubin said Salih also made a point of cultivating "junior think-tank guys" in the years before the war in Iraq. Those same people are now in more senior positions, making the connections even more important.
Karim, who’s now the governor of Kirkuk, was an outspoken advocate for the Kurdish-American diaspora. A trained neurosurgeon, Karim formed the Washington Kurdish Institute. Together, experts say, Karim and Salih formed the backbone of the Kurdish lobby.
"What the Kurds have done differently and more successfully is they didn’t simply hire a lobbying firm; they had some very media-savvy people of their own here for quite a long time, who established some key relations," Rubin said.
More recently, Qubad Talabani played this role, serving as the de facto U.S. representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq for several years (the Kurds maintain a lavish quasi-embassy in downtown Washington that they use for parties and receptions that regularly draw large numbers of members of the House and Senate). But he’s also left Washington to join politics and is now the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Talabani’s absence has left a vacuum in Washington that has yet to be filled, Pollock said.
In the meantime, with KRG officials in Iraq stepping up their demands for drones and other advanced U.S. weaponry, the Kurdish diplomats who are here — and their paid advocates throughout official Washington — are in for a busy few months.