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 Kurdistan government lobby in Washington: Success or Failure?

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Kurdistan government lobby in Washington: Success or Failure?  3.6.2012  

KRG Delegation in USA. December 10, 2011. From right, Qubad Talabani, Kurdistan Govt KRG representative in the United States, Falah Mustafa Bakir, Minister of Foreign Relations in Kurdistan Regional Government, Fuad Hussein, the head of Kurdistan Presidency Office, Ashti Hawrami, Iraqi minister of natural resources of the KRG. Photo: KRG

June 3, 2012

WASHINGTON,—  Qubad Talabani, 34, set up the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) lobby in 2006 and succeeded in portraying Kurdistan as “the other Iraq” with the help of paid consultants, evangelists and retired generals.

Now Talabani is heading home. Some say the Kurdish lobby under his leadership has been ineffective and partisan, while others praise his efforts. It thus remains to be seen whether Qubad is leaving a sinking ship or a rising star.

One of his fiercest critics has been neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Michael Rubin, who has had an adversarial relationship with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for years, while having good relations with Kurdish pro-opposition media.

In an interview with the pro-opposition magazine Livin, he said that the KRG just makes friends with those in power. “But, because power shifts in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans believe the Kurds are not true friends,” Rubin told the magazine.

Furthermore, Rubin claims that the KDP and the PUK do not work together much in Washington, and even claimed that if Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader and president of Iraq, and Qubad’s aging father, died, “President Barzani [KDP leader] will throw him away. I doubt that he will even allow Qubad to step foot in Kurdistan.”

But Qubad does not have to worry about being kicked out by the KDP. According to a report by Al Monitor, Qubad will begin working as the head of a strategic policy coordinating body, reporting to Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

Heyrsh Abdulrahman, former PUK deputy director for community outreach, largely agrees with the criticism of Rubin, and says lobby groups must be neutral and not dependent on governments. “For example, the strength of the Jewish lobby in the United States is in its neutrality with regard to American and Israeli politics. In the past, unfortunately, American Kurds have supported Democratic candidates and negatively criticized Republicans.”

Furthermore, Abdulrahman alleges that Kurdish parties have hired individuals to lobby for their case, “but in America, paid agents are not well-respected.”

The KRG spent millions on lobbying in D.C. In 2010, Washingtonian magazine reported that the KRG had paid its lobbyists more than $4.6 million since 2007. In 2011, the KRG spent $730,000 on the lobbying company BGR, though this year they only paid them $90,000. In 2011, American companies, labor unions and other organizations spent $3.32 billion to pay lobbies to act on their behalf.

Abdulrahman, who used to work with the KRG told Rudaw that Kurds initiated a campaign, “Kurds for Obama,” during the last election. “The campaign certainly antagonized Republicans, and may hurt Kurdistan’s interests in the future,” Abdulrahman says.

The KRG says it had nothing to do with the campaign.

Abdulrahman says the Kurdish community, not the government, must build a lobby in the U.S. “But given the nature of Kurdish parties, they would never tolerate the emergence of an independent Kurdish lobby in the U.S., unless it’s remains under their control.”

Abdulrahman’s former boss, Qubad Talabani, told Rudaw that this does not reflect reality. “Those that make such claims have no idea about Kurdish-U.S. relations. Over the course of the past 25 years, we have been cultivating relationships with both Democrats and Republicans. It's not for us to like one more than the other.”

Talabani says the KRG in D.C. has learned from the mistakes of the Iraqi opposition, who tried to pit Republicans against Democrats. “Along with the friendships we've kept with former officials of Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and current Obama officials, one only needs to look at the makeup of the Kurdish American Congressional Caucus and see its bipartisan nature to understand it's in our interests to maintain and strengthen relations with America as a whole.”

Lincoln Davis, former U.S. congressman and co-founder of the Kurdish Caucus in U.S. Congress, told Rudaw that the KRG-supported Kurdish-American Caucus is bipartisan. “The Kurdish-American Caucus has 18 Republicans and 23 Democrats; this is a good number of bipartisan members.”

Davis thinks the KRG is successful in its lobbying efforts. “The KRG I believe is very effective with its lobbying. Their work encouraged legislation that directed the State Department to establish a consulate in Erbil, now open. Several meetings are held each year with congressional staff, members of congress and Kurdish advocates working in Washington. I know all the members of the caucus and they are a good cross-section of U.S. Congress.”

Michael Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Technological University, says the KRG is “intelligent enough” to have bridges with both parties. “KRG lobbies both parties. Qubad’s mission in the United States is to try influence all Americans, and to influence them in a positive way, by telling them the truth as much as possible. I don’t think he goes around lying. Sometimes he may exaggerate a little bit, but he is a politician -- what is he supposed to do? Overall, Qubad Talabani has a tremendously positive influence in the United States.”

Although local Kurds criticize the KRG for being involved in corruption and nepotism, Gunter says Qubad “listens to that [criticism], and says we have problems and we working on that. He is a representative of his government, but he is much more balanced than most diplomats. You know there is a KDP and PUK rivalry, but Qubad told me ‘I work for Massoud Barzani.’”

According to Talabani, the recent establishment of the United States-Kurdistan Business Council (USKBC), headed by former national security advisor Jim Jones, is a great success for the KRG in the U.S. “So now alongside the efforts of the KRG office in the U.S., we have a robust congressional caucus advocating Kurdish issues, along with a powerful trade association doing the same. This is all coupled with the growing engagement of the Kurdish American community in politics and policy-making.”

But in his interview with Livin, Michael Rubin claimed that the alleged lack of democracy and human rights violations had hurt the image of Kurdistan in D.C. On the other hand, Qubad pointed out on his blog that experts of Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) concluded, after visiting the region, that Kurdistan is neither “the best thing since sliced bread, nor ... the ‘disaster’” it is sometimes made out to be.

In addition, some Kurds criticize the KRG for being much too focused on promoting themselves while ignoring the cause of Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria. Qubad Talabani says this criticism is unfair since “we are representing the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq to the United States.” Despite these allegations, the KRG recommended Washington invite the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC), and helped the Syrian Kurdish delegation. Furthermore, the KRG also received politicians of Turkey’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Dr. Marianna Charountaki, a specialist in U.S.-Kurdish relations, told Rudaw that a lobby has to be seen in context, and that the KRG is not representing a sovereign state, just the regional Kurdish government. “That is, any non-state actors or weaker state powers are by nature limited, but this has nothing to do with their role and its effectiveness.”

According to Washingtonian magazine, the KRG remains a part of Iraq, and that is why U.S. officials and oil companies are careful not to jeopardize relations with the Iraqi government. Despite this, the KRG was still able to convince Exxon to come to Kurdistan, and some claim the KRG is out-lobbying Baghdad in D.C.

Charountaki says that, in the case of KRG, and considering its status, “I do think that they do what they can. They are effective as they have established relations with both [Republicans and Democrats]. Off course, you deal with whoever is in power as representatives, as they are the elected ones.”

Despite the differing opinions over the efforts of the KRG in D.C., it is still unclear who is going to replace Qubad Talabani. There are rumors that the experienced U.K. KRG representative Bayan Abdul Rahman is going to replace Talabani, but she refused to confirm this. “There are a lot of rumours, but my position is that I am happy to serve Kurdistan wherever that might be,” she told Rudaw.

By Wladimir van Wilgenburg, London, Rudaw.

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