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State senator Atkinson on Iraqi Kurdistan exchange program

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Friday, August 01, 2008

JasonAtkinson
PHOTO BY TIM BULLARD

OREGON MEET IRAQI KURDISTAN

IN 2005, OREGON SEN. JASON ATKINSON created the nation’s first state-to-state business exchange program with Iraqi Kurdistan — the semi-autonomous state in the northern part of Iraq. The 37-year-old Central Point Republican — he was elected to the House in 1998 and the Senate in 2000 — first became interested in the region when he majored in Middle Eastern history and political science in college. Trade missions he took to Egypt and Jordan after being elected made him realize that relationships between states and countries could be about more than diplomacy or altruism — they could also be about economic ties.

To create those, he says, Oregonians and the Kurds need to get to know each other. This spring Atkinson took a handful of politicians and members of Oregon’s business community for a visit. Iraqi Kurdistan suffered decades of brutality and genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein and its economy is just beginning to rebound. Atkinson runs his own strategic consultancy firm and describes the latest trip as a “snapshot in time of an emerging economic market” for the people who went. He’s particularly focused on the rebirth of two industries that Oregon knows well: agriculture and forestry.

What was your first impression when you visited? I’m a lot taller than a lot of folks over there.

What were you able to accomplish on the most recent trip? I think I was able to show everyone the infrastructure needs in terms of ag and forest and medicine — just the fundamentals of what’s needed for small business.

What parallels have you found between the two states? There’s a saying there: There’s no friend like the mountains. When you get up by the border it looks just like the Cascades. But you know, Saddam napalmed the forests so people couldn’t hide from the genocide. If you’re looking at the mountains, you think, “That’s where trees go,” and then you think, “That’s something Oregon can help with: reforestation.”

What’s impressed you about the business community over there? When they privatized the banking system. That’s such a huge leap forward. And the fact that there’s private property. Those are part of the backbone that makes our [economic] system work. And the Kurds are really building upon those fundamentals. Business is starting to grow. They privatized higher education, which means women are going to school.

How do you define the success of a program like this? Success is in the relationships. It’s not formal; it’s not state-to-state; it’s not business-to-business. It’s “How’s your wife? How’s your house and the kids?” The first time I was there I was doing meetings. The last time the prime minister was asking about my son. Those are the relationships that will outlast elections. If I bring a group of Kurds to Oregon, there’s a good chance the people I bring will someday be running their country. The people I bring to Kurdistan from Oregon may end up in Washington, D.C., someday. These are good relationships to have. It’s really a long-term approach.                            

ABRAHAM HYATT

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