During the Bush Administration, adventurers like Dallas-headquartered Hunt Oil paved the way for ExxonMobil, which cut a deal in Erbil in 2011. Bush and his advisers could not bring themselves to force American oil companies such as Hunt to divest from Kurdistan or to sanction non-American investors. They allowed the wildcatters to do as they pleased while insisting that Erbil’s politicians negotiate oil-revenue sharing and political unity with Baghdad. Erbil’s rulers never quite saw the point of a final compromise with Baghdad’s Shiite politicians—as each year passed, the Kurds got richer on their own terms, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like they led a de-facto state. The Obama Administration has done nothing to reverse that trend.
And so, in Erbil, in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq’s seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist quixotically in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.
Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal—as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, for example—are best not spoken of in polite or naïve company, as Al Swearengen would well understand. Life, Swearengen once pointed out, is often made up of “one vile task after another.” So is American policy in Iraq.