"This moment requires statesmanship." That was Secretary of State John F. Kerry _ a man not known for irony _ in a meeting in late June with Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Appealing to Barzani's nonexistent Iraqi patriotism, Kerry asked for the Kurdistan leadership's help in fighting Islamic militants overrunning northern Iraq, and pleaded for Kurds to help form a new government in Baghdad rather than seek independence.
But what Kerry seems to have meant is, "This moment requires provincialism," because that is what the United States is asking the Kurds to remain: a province of Iraq. The Kurds aren't likely to listen -- Barzani announced a referendum on independence -- and the question now is: How should the U.S. respond? Washington has long insisted on Iraq's unity -- "worship(ing) at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state," as foreign policy analyst Leslie Gelb has written. But recognizing Kurdish independence would advance American interests and better reflect American values.
The Kurds have powerful moral claims to statehood, claims denied after World War I, when a Kurdish state first proposed under Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination was instead divided among Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Iraqi Kurds' decades of suffering under Baghdad -- including Saddam Hussein's genocidal gassing campaign -- give them grounds for exit now.
Still, despite calls over the years to recognize Kurdish claims, there have long been hard-nosed, geopolitical objections. But those concerns always rested on a brittle reading of realism and have now vanished.
Independence carries risks, but there are no options that don't. Kurdish independence is happening and we don't have good alternatives, so we might as well harness it to our interests. The U.S. wants the Islamic State defeated. But neither 300 military advisors nor drones nor bombing are going to turn the tide or hold the ground. The Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, is the only fighting force in Iraq able to resist and roll back the militants.
But the Kurds don't have any incentive to carry the fight to the Islamic State. If the U.S. wants the Kurds' aid, we will need to give them something.
So what kind of deal is Washington offering? Help defeat the Islamic State and, in exchange, please forgo independence and join a new government for the dysfunctional country you want to escape. Not a particularly attractive offer.
Kurds see their moment for exit, and they are unwilling to commit lives and treasure to maintain an Iraqi state to which they feel only the heavy bonds of painful, past entanglements. Americans should understand that. And we have something the Kurds do very much want: recognition. So America should be telling the Kurds: If you help defeat the militants in the rest of Iraq, we will recognize your independence.
We shouldn't take countries apart for pleasure, but neither should we insist on unity when states stop working for the people living in them. The Kurds have long since lost faith in Iraq and are rapidly consolidating their independence.
Statesmanship is a quality we associate with states. The Kurds have long wanted one; perhaps now is the time. For that to happen requires statesmanship -- from us.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Timothy William Waters is a professor of law and associate director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and editor of "The Milosevic Trial _ An Autopsy." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.