The 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt began with authorities arresting and torturing a young man. The regime attempted to deploy a narrative of what they claim transpired. Meanwhile protest groups began publishing on websites video and testimony to prove an alternative narrative. What followed became the first revolution utilizing digital means of creating narrative to garner support for a cause that alongside the use of social media, changed Egypt and brought down the Mubarak regime. Politics and policy in a Democracy is built on narrative. It is one side daring to tell their story against the other side’s story, hopefully with more compelling detail and targeted for a more vocal and influential audience.
Every single political movement competes for attention while constantly striving to tell the best stories, through the best methods. I spent three years working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, traveling across the country speaking at large events in grand hotel ballrooms or smaller gatherings among leaders in their living rooms. It always began by telling the story of Israel, the narrative of the little nation that could, intermingled with images of the realized Zionist dream. I dived into enormous detail about the wars fought and the special relationship forged between Israel and the United States as a hallmark of Democracy and freedom in an ever changing and troubling world. After twenty minutes of engaging story telling, the policy was easy. The stage set, I could speak about any number of relevant topics, including Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, security assistance and other steps AIPAC actively took to ensure Israel’s defense needs were met and the relationship kept strong. As an organization, AIPAC has found success in its ability to build narrative for the State of Israel. When Israel endures a crisis such as Operation Protective Edge, they are vocal and take their own initiative to promote awareness and speak for themselves. Israeli officials and supporters are quickly seen on American airwaves.
The events of the past few weeks highlighted another marginalized people attempting to fight for their independence. The Kurds of Northern Syria are the perfect example of a need for a stronger public affairs narrative. After the Kurds played the critical role in the “defeat” of ISIS, they established the independent state of Rojava, which emerged as the youngest Democracy in the Middle East. Following President Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. forces from Northern Syria, we see a small yet determined people fighting for their lives, land, and government against a well equipped and trained Turkish force on one side and a growing glob of Russians, Iranians, and Syrians on all others.
Despite some small pockets of outcry, there has hardly been robust condemnation or actions taken to protect Kurdish interests in Washington outside of the rhetoric. While the Kurds proved themselves on the battlefield and the struggle to form a democracy in the face of tyrannical powers is inherently an American value, they are unfortunately the victim of what happens when you lack actual political capital and relationships to change the course of an administration’s decision.
As media outlets reported on the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Kurdish areas, most Americans were and still are ill informed on who the Kurds are, what they want, and their history. If they wish to have a place in the larger foreign policy discussion, they must develop their presence. Their Foreign Minister must appear on every television outlet, senior military and political officials must make the rounds and offer lectures and panels with every think-tank offering a platform for them to do so. On the ground, as Turkey continues their incursions and the Kurds are forced to once again fight for their survival, they must join the twenty-first century where any with a phone or camera becomes a journalist and a social media account can live stream events in real time. From this approach their story will be told. The Kurds will begin to further establish a stronger presence in the American conversation with their future penetrating every topic of discussion as it relates to the 2020 Presidential cycle.
Geopolitical shocks offer teachable moments for all sides. The Kurds will have to do their best to keep fighting for that same dream shared by many marginalized people of one day living peacefully in a state of their own. The concerns regarding the Kurds are ballooning the larger question of where America’s foreign policy priorities will be in the next decade.
If the administration continues to pull back from foreign commitments with “intervention fatigue”, the Kurds and other allies will either need to lean on other sponsors with a similar narrative for support or sharpen their ability to build on their public relationships, none more important than those on Capitol Hill and the Washington foreign policy establishment in an effort to create strong bi-partisan support. If policy should change, the Kurds will then be at the forefront for support with a public opinion viewing their struggle as corresponding with American interests.