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.
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.
Denise Natali, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington, is a vocal critic of what she calls the "love affair" between the Kurdish Regional Government and the United States. Our special treatment of Iraqi Kurdistan only further fractures Iraq, and a unified country is still the U.S. policy. "The Kurds were very reliable allies," she told me. "There was complicity between the U.S. forces and peshmerga, and they were extremely helpful. But this is not a state... and quasi states thrive off weak central governments."
After the invasion, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the peshmerga as they took over disputed territories, picking up the pieces of a shattered Iraq -- a move Natali considers "one of the most serious mistakes made by American forces." In the process of dismantling the Iraqi Army and infrastructure, a safe haven emerged in the north, and not just for Kurds. During the war, American soldiers came to the north to relax, where they were treated as celebrities. "People would cheer them when they came to Suli," Ali remembered. "They would practice their English by talking to the military. They wanted them to take pictures with their children."
In the years since, Iraqi Kurdistan has raced ahead of Baghdad, with the more hardline Kurds pushing an aggressive political and economic agenda. But Iraqi Kurdistan is still part of Iraq, and their long-term future depends on their relationship with the capital. "This is a Kurdish miscalculation of their own leverage," Natali said. "The coddling by Americans, and by Turks, means Kurds think they don't have to negotiate with Baghdad."
Meanwhile, there are plenty of flaws in the picture of Iraqi Kurdistan as a peaceful, prosperous, and Western-friendly island. Progress in the KRG has been marred by allegations of corruption, cronyism and bribery. While prices of food and housing in Erbil skyrocket, salaries remain low and jobs can be hard to find for the unconnected. Meanwhile the Barzanis -- still remembered as revolutionary leaders -- live in an opulent, gated area just outside of Erbil. When people can't afford food, they size up their leader's mansions. In 2011, anti-government protests in Sulaymaniyah were brutally stopped by security forces. Journalists who have criticized the government have been censored, or worse. People complain that the majority of Erbil's budget goes unaccounted for, and people are starting to complain a lot.
Alongside the discontent with the present government is a measured disapproval of their friend the U.S., weighed against the removal of Saddam. "I'm sorry to say that Bush is an idiot," a businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me last September. "But without his help it would not have been possible to liberate Iraq. I like what America did. They removed Saddam. But they created a lot of mini Saddams."
These "mini-Saddams," according to the businessman, are the Kurdish leaders, including the three amigos' friend and tour guide, Massoud Barzani. "It was a liberation, but then it was destroyed," the businessman continued. "Now we are number one for corruption in the world. Where is the freedom? If you say that you don't like it, they kill you."
"Kurdish people don't understand," he continued. "They think America can do anything, but that's not true. America is the best country in the world, but they act in their own interest. They know what's going on now, but Marines won't come in and change our system for us. You will see, soon there will be 200,000 in the street. When there are 200,000 in the street, what can America do? Who did the American senators talk to? They should go to the streets. Everyone is angry there. Otherwise why even come? They could have just called on the telephone."
I was reminded of nine years earlier, in September 2003, when Colin Powell traveled to Halabja. He was there to dedicate a memorial to the those killed by Saddam's chemical weapons, and, so close to the invasion, it was a highly photogenic trip. Large crowds greeted Powell waving American flags and holding photos of Bush and Cheney, American war heroes. At the time of the attacks, the U.S. response had been muted, but this was a new, post-Saddam era. America had redeemed itself and Powell's message was clear. "I can't tell you that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant. You know that," he said. "What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again." The visit completed a transaction. Kurds got Powell's reassurance of American protection; Powell got a dose of positive reinforcement. Both side had the world's attention.
Nearly ten years later, the three amigos follow Powell's footsteps through a very different world. To the west is war in Syria. To the north, Turkey seizes opportunity in Iraqi Kurdistan. To the south, Baghdad attempts to rebuild. The U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq. And still, the senators' visit was an eerie echo of Powell's trip. In Iraqi Kurdistan, McCain, Lieberman, and Graham wanted positive reinforcement that in the course of the war, they had made some people happy.
I was on the heels of the three amigos, and the day after they left Shaqlawa, I arrived. I followed their itinerary to Hadi Nuts and Sweets, a shop where the men had mingled with some locals. Behind long garlands of sugar-dipped nuts and barrels of seeds, the shopkeeper happily recounted McCain's visit. "He was so..." he puffed out his chest. "And so kind."
"Did he buy anything?" I asked.
"Did he taste anything?"
"Did he ask you any questions?"
"Only one. He wanted to know if I like Americans."
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting