The announcement Thursday night that former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton would replace Gen. H.R. McMaster as President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor confirms the arrival of a new, distinctive voice in the Trump administration.
On no issue will Bolton’s firm stance present a bigger departure from establishment dogma than his support for an independent Kurdistan.
Bolton has vocally, consistently supported the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, arguing that the Kurds have proven their ability to govern themselves and earned the support of the United States through their reliable cooperation with Washington against a number of jihadist threats, most prominently the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Kurdish people are divided among territories belonging to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, making enemies of all these governments. For decades—and in particular recently, when all four countries faced a growing ISIS presence threatening their stability—Kurds of a variety of factions have proven willing to risk the lives of their armies to defend overlapping interests with America. They take their alliance with the United States seriously and rely only on support from Israel among their neighbors.
Yet despite early hope that the Trump administration would support Kurdish aspirations to become independent of the Islamists in Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus, Trump’s Washington has proven fickle. In Iraq, President Trump vowed not to “take sides” between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iran-backed Shiite militias that have repeatedly threatened to kill Americans. In Syria, America has stood back while Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered Turkish troops to launch an ethnic cleansing operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The Kurds of Turkey have long been under the heel of an on-again/off-again military occupation in Diyarbakir while Erdogan has arrested any politician who voiced concern for them. It is important to note that, unlike the Peshmerga or the YPG, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the violent Kurdish faction in Diyarbakir, is a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
The Peshmerga have openly opposed the PKK, however, and were still forced to accept an Iranian invasion of their Iraqi stronghold Kirkuk. Kirkuk is not originally part of the commonly accepted territory of Kurdistan, but the Peshmerga brought it under Kurdish rule after defeating ISIS there in 2014. The Islamic State took Kirkuk over after the Iraqi army fled.
The arguments against supporting Kurdish independence largely boil down to “it’s too complicated. You wouldn’t understand.” As with nearly every other major international conflict, and typically infuriating every “adult in the room” in Washington, Bolton has rejected this holier-than-thou establishment approach to Kurdish independence. Instead, Bolton has repeatedly made the clear-cut case that the Kurdish people have proven their ability to run a federal government in arguably the most volatile corner of the earth.
Bolton vocally supported the September 2017 Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) referendum on independence from Iraq.
“I think it’s time for the Kurdish people in Iraq to give a voice to their aspirations,” he told Kurdistan 24 at the time. “I think the Kurdish people are de facto independent already.”
To Rudaw, another Kurdish outlet, Bolton said at the time, “I think the government of Iraq has collapsed. I don’t think it can be put back together. I have said the Kurds in Iraq have demonstrated being capable of governing themselves. I don’t see them ever going back voluntarily.”
On Breitbart News Daily, where he contributed regularly, he did not change his tone for a non-Kurdish audience.
“The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world that has never had a nation in contemporary times,” Bolton explained. “Just two days ago, they held a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and voted well over 90 percent for independence. I think the United States should support independence for the Kurds. They’ve been friends of ours in the struggle against Saddam Hussein and the struggle against international terrorism. I think they’d be an important buffer against Iran.”
“The Baghdad government is controlled by the ayatollahs from Tehran. The American strategy to defeat ISIS, which has relied so heavily on the Baghdad government, I think has been a mistake,” he continued. “I think it’s a mistake for the State Department now, as it did before the referendum, to tell the Kurds ‘don’t hold it,’ and opposing now the inevitable consequences. They’re now going to be de jure independent.”
A month later, Bolton argued in a column for the Gatestone Institute that the Kurdish nations, particularly U.S. allies in Iraq, had played a “productive” role in the little good news to surface from the region for several decades.
Iraqi Kurdistan became de facto independent from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, protected by the U.S-led operation known as “Northern Comfort,” which included massive humanitarian assistance and a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Saddam’s 2003 overthrow opened the prospect of reunifying the country, but Iranian subversion, using Iraq’s Shia majority to turn the country into its satellite, refueled Kurdish separatism.
Unfortunately, but entirely predictably, our State Department opposed even holding the referendum and firmly rejects Kurdish independence. This policy needs to be reversed immediately, turning U.S. obstructionism into leadership. Kurdish independence efforts did not create regional instability but instead reflect the unstable reality.
Independence could well promote greater Middle Eastern security and stability than the collapsing post-World War I order.
Bolton was clear in the article—in a way that so few prominent thinkers in American politics —that the Iraqi Kurds do not deserve to be lumped in the same category as the PKK. “Obviously, during the Cold War, Washington and the West generally had no interest in weakening Turkey and its critical geostrategic role as NATO’s southeast anchor against Soviet adventurism,” he notes. Supporting a Marxist terrorist group would have done just that.
And yet in this decade, even the PKK have played a prominent role against ISIS. PKK fighters stopped the genocide of Yazidis when the Peshmerga chose against a full battle against ISIS in Sinjar.
Elsewhere, the Peshmerga helped liberate Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. The YPG, who Washington is currently failing to defend against the Turkish military, helped liberate Kobane, a border town with Turkey; Tal Abyad, a critical ISIS stronghold; and Raqqa, Syria, the “capital” of ISIS.
Trump took credit for many of these victories during his State of the Union address this year. With Bolton at his side, he may finally fully lend a hand to those who made them possible.