Last September, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham - a.k.a the "three amigos" -- went to Iraq. The bipartisan senators had long bonded over their common support of American military intervention, most recently in Syria, famously in Iran, and -- in 2003, again in 2007, and still in 2012 -- in Iraq.
But a tour through Iraq exposes what happens when America does, in fact, intervene militarily, and so it must have come as a relief to the amigos when they arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It's been ten years since the U.S.-led invasion, and most will observe the anniversary by remembering the dead and evaluating mistakes. Things are a little different in Iraqi Kurdistan, the northernmost autonomous region where the "invasion" is still referred to -- insistently -- as a "liberation." It's a strange, parallel universe in which American ideals like freedom from tyranny and economic promise are more intact than they are in America, as is the belief that those ideals can be spread and won through war. Some say that admiration for Americans runs so high that among the younger generation are Kurds named "Bush." I've never met such a child (nor have I ever met anyone who has) but it's plenty surreal that, as the amigos gleefully tweeted, Iraqi Kurds like Americans. Moreover, they like Republicans -- the more hawkish the better.
For a few days, the senators were led by a beaming President Massoud Barzani, who they referred to on Twitter as an "old friend" (by McCain) and a "Kurdish patriot and true friend of the US" (by Lieberman). They visited Erbil, Shaqlawa, and Kore, where abandoned Iraqi tanks are monuments to Saddam's defeat by Kurdish troops in 1991, the year the U.S. helped to establish a no-fly zone over the region. They reconfirmed the friendship started by that no-fly zone. Barzani was happy to show the senators what they wanted to see.
"Obama is a good family man," a local reporter told me. "But I love Bush more. Bush killed Saddam." He shook his fist and said, "I love America!"
I was also in Iraqi Kurdistan, and wherever I went the reputation of the American senators preceded me. More than usual, any objection to the war was seen as a direct affront to Kurdish freedom. Nor could I compare Obama favorably to Bush; like the three amigos, most Iraqi Kurds prefer the muscle of a Republican in office. "Obama is a good family man," a local reporter told me. "But I love Bush more. Bush killed Saddam." He shook his fist and said, "I love America!"
Kurds, perhaps more than any group, can attest to the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime. Under Saddam, years of systematic human rights abuses culminated in the Anfal campaign, during which chemical weapons were used to kill over 50,000 civilians (some reports are much higher). Still today those deaths are vivid in the collective consciousness of Iraqi Kurds, who fret about aggression from future Saddams and covet the strong army and financial independence that could insulate them. The U.S. has been instrumental toward this goal, not just with the no-fly zone and the 2003 invasion, but post-invasion security and nation-building. "I remember that my brother called me from the U.K. when the war was about to start," Ali Kurdistani, a political analyst from Sulaymaniyah, told me. "I told him, 'This is the first time we have heard aircrafts flying over us and haven't been scared. Some people put up the U.S. flag and photos of President Bush."
Since then -- and in contrast to Baghdad -- Iraqi Kurdistan has improved. The 2005 constitution (mediated by the U.S.) greatly benefited Kurds, and the region is in the midst of an economic boom. Foreign construction -- mostly Turkish -- has transformed the village into a city. Mega malls -- selling mostly Turkish products -- dot the sides of highways. There are not only airports and schools, there are airplanes and students. The area is popular with tourists; many wealthier Arab Iraqis travel from the embattled south to relax and enjoy amenities like electricity. And oil companies, including Chevron, are poised to tap into Iraqi Kurdistan's reserves. All this was impossible under Saddam. "Business is the real result of the war in Iraq," Ali told me. "Most of the country is in conflict, but this model here -- and I'm not saying it's perfect -- has helped the Kurds financially. We are part of the oil industry we were always excluded from."
Iraqi Kurds love Bush and McCain as they love their peshmerga -- the khaki-clad Kurdish security forces whose name translates to "those who face death" and whose sole focus, whether in the mountains or the streets of Kirkuk, has been the defense of the Kurdish minority. The peshmerga were strong enough to challenge, but not vanquish, Saddam. That took the U.S. Army. When the local man shook his fist and said "I love America!" he was referring to his love for America's fist.
But the love is fragile, partly because it depends on an American strategy that never existed. America didn't invade Iraq to liberate the Kurds, and Kurds wouldn't be the priority in a remade Iran, should the three amigos get their way. There were more powerful motives for the American invasion -- and later, the depressing reality that those motives were based on lies.
And yet many Kurds -- Ali for instance -- also supported Bush's aggression toward Iran. "When Bush was still in power, he used to talk about 'regime change' against Iran," he said. "We were hoping that if he did the same thing in Iran that he did in Iraq, it would be good for the Kurds." But relying on the collateral benefits of warfare is a little like waiting for a jail to catch on fire so your wrongly imprisoned friend can escape. It's dangerous and not terribly reliable.