Hereditary Despotism

February 8, 2018

On 7 March, 161 a young Roman with oceans of royal blood flowing in his veins took over the largest empire the world had yet seen. For 19 years he expanded imperial territory, quelled upstart rebels, chose wise counselors and loyal generals over flatterers, butressed the national treasury, and during his spare moments wrote one of the finest books of philosophy produced in the West. Over a thousand years later, and a thousand miles to the north, a young Luxemborgian prince ascended to the throne. He was fluent in five languages, skillful in politics, was eventually crowned the first Bohemian Holy Roman Emperor, gave his name to some of the most beautiful monuments in Prague, and in his spare moments was a patron to artists, academics, architects, and thinkers on a scale that is roughly impossible to understand today. If there was a light in Europe during those dark ages, the odds were good it twinkled in Prague.

Both of which represent the best that can be said for hereditary despotism. A nation with the great fortune to have a brilliant, temperate, ambitious, wise, limitless autocrat can accomplish things no grumpy, checked and balanced republic could dream of. The problem is that for every Marcus Aurelius there are dozens of paranoid megalomaniacs like his son Commodus, and for every Charles IV of Bohemia there are dozens of disgraced and dethroned drunks like his son Wenceslaus IV.

Which brings us, of course, to Iraqi Kurdistan. For decades, probably three or four generations, two giants tended to the flame of the Kurdish cause in Iraq. Jalal Talabani was in many ways its hope. Talabani was known for an overwhelming peronality, great appetites, and a willingness to work with anyone to further the cause of Kurdistan. Talabani even worked with the Yanqui invaders when, as president of Iraq, he did his very best to stitch together something approaching a nation in the early post-Saddam era. If Mam Jalal represented a kind of hope, Masoud Barzani represented the cold, merciless Kurdish pragmatism learned by living forever inside the valleys, villages, and sometimes the shirts of your enemies, and nearly always as a minority. Barzani could be called a sucker for Iran by one group and a Turkish stooge on the same day by another, but nobody would turn a back on him either.

And 2017 saw both of those old men put out of business. Time and a stroke took care of Talabani, after which he was eulogized by Qassem Suleimani, who attended Mam Jalal’s funeral in person, out of respect. Barzani was forced into retirement after a disastrous decision to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, and Suleimani made himself known there as well, pushing PMU forces to chase Kurdish peshmerga out of Kirkuk after the vote was taken.

With that as a backdrop, we ran across this article at one of our favorite Middle East sources, regarding the current state of Kurdish government in Iraq. Pictured directly on top are Talabani’s son Qubad and Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan. They are the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistand Regional Government and the prime minister, respectively. The story is about Nechivran Barzani calling on Iranian Kurdish seperatists to stop or avoid attacks on Iran from Iraqi Kurdish territory. That is, from the KRG region that Barzani and Talabani the Younger have esssentially inherited. But the picture is one of those that tells more than the words that follow. Kurds in the Middle East have rarely had great leadership, and the senior Barzani or Talabani would remind nobody of Marcus Aurelius or Charles IV. But the Kurdish public needs this next generation, pictured uneasily side by side at the top of that story, to avoid being another Commodus or Wenceslaus.