The weather has cooperated and the commencement ceremony, held outdoors, proceeds as planned—jubilant students, speakers straining for humor and advice, the awarding of diplomas. The campus, a modern structure of tan stone sitting handsomely atop a hill, framed by nearby mountains, could be anywhere in the American Southwest. But this isn't America, it is the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, in Iraqi Kurdistan's second-largest city.
Nearly all of Kurdistan's elite are on hand—former peshmerga military commanders, technocrats, businessmen, and two of the region's most influential younger politicians, Barham Salih, former prime minister of the regional government, and Nechirvan Barzani, the current occupant of that position.
The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani had been, as late as 2006, an impossible idea held by Mr. Salih, a devoted and driven modernizer with a doctorate of his own from the United Kingdom. Its first students attended classes in portable cabins. Today, in late May, a beautiful campus surrounds us, and degrees are being conferred in information technology, international studies and business administration.
The pride is palpable. Success and tranquillity have not been the lot of the Kurds, but now they are making, and safeguarding, their history.
The Kurds are not waiting on Baghdad. In May alone, 1,045 people were killed in Iraq, 2,377 wounded, and there were more than 560 episodes of violence. Several years back, a stranger venturing into Kurdistan was treated to tales of hurt and grief, the cruelty meted out by Saddam Hussein's Baath regime. The memory lives on, but there is in the air a sense of vindication—and practicality. On the ruins of that old, cruel world the Kurds are busy building a decent public order.
Geographically, Baghdad is just 200 miles southwest, but it could be worlds away. Stran Abdullah, at 44 one of Kurdistan's most informed and talented journalists, tells me hasn't been to Baghdad in more than five years. For him, he says, it is now an alien city. Still, his Arabic is fluid and rich—a contrast to so many young Kurds who have lost touch with that language. He didn't quibble when I dubbed him Kurdistan's last Iraqi.
Everywhere, the pretense of "one Iraq" grows weaker by the day. Yet it is still observed if only because a hard partition is destined to be a bloody affair. The line where Kurdistan ends and the rest of Iraq begins runs through an explosive mix of ethnic claims and economic ambitions.
Kirkuk alone should suffice to sober up those who rush into the breach—it is a city as rich in oil as it is in political troubles. One doesn't have to be terribly imaginative to foresee catastrophe in that tinderbox: ethnic cleansing, a Kurdish victory in Kirkuk matched by the eviction of Kurds from the Sunni Arab side of the dividing line.
A people schooled in tragedy are not eager to call it up again. There is an economic boom in Kurdistan, and those here who have known privation for so long now savor their newfound prosperity. The traffic jams bear witness to that. There are more than a million cars on Kurdistan's roads, in a place with fewer than five million people. The consumer goods of the world are here and plentiful.
The region's capital, Erbil, is a surprise after the stark mountains: a boomtown with swanky hotels, shopping malls and construction cranes everywhere. It has the feel of Houston and shades of Dubai. Entrepreneurship seems to be the people's creed. The region produces 200,000 barrels of oil a day, expected to reach a million a day by 2015, and there is an estimated 45 billion barrels in the ground. No wonder the optimism.
The fantasy of Iraqi Kurdistan serving as a magnet for the Kurds of neighboring Syria, Iran and perhaps southeast Turkey, in a bid for Greater Kurdistan, has no takers here. A substantial refugee population from Syrian Kurdistan has made its way here. But the advice given the Syrian Kurds has been stick to your land, create facts on the ground, be wary of the Assad dictatorship and of the rebellion alike. This is a small landlocked regional government and it knows better than to trifle with the two giants that overhang it—Iran and Turkey.
Turkish companies are the largest foreign presence here, and a recent deal struck between the regional government, a Turkish state-run oil firm and Exxon Mobil XOM +1.77% to develop projects in the region confirms that Turkey is now Kurdistan's preferred outlet to the world. Ankara's historic distrust of the Kurds is rapidly receding, and Iraqi Kurdistan has played no small part in the recent truce between the Turkish government and the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
The Kurds remain the most pro-American population in this swath of broad Middle Eastern geography. Yet Washington spurns the Kurds as it courts a strongman in Baghdad who has cast his lot with the Iranian theocracy and the Syrian dictatorship.
In December 2011, as President Obama boasted of his strategic retreat in the region and of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he held up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as "the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq." Never mind that Mr. Maliki was hard at work intimidating the opposition, consolidating power and warning the Kurds that all oil proceeds must run through Baghdad.
A member of the Kurdish political class lamented to me: "This world we have was bequeathed us by the United States, by the protection that Anglo-American air power gave us after the disastrous events of the first Gulf War of 1990-91. And now the troubles we have holding our own against Baghdad are the product of American policies as well."
What American influence remained after military withdrawal was the U.S. pressure brought to bear on the Kurds—and on the Turks—against the oil deals pursued by Turkey in Kurdistan. But these oil and gas fields had their own power. The Kurds, the Turks and the big oil companies defied the protestations of the White House. The supreme irony: At a time when Iraqis of all stripes were breaking with the idea of a dominion from Baghdad, the U.S. was arguing that Kurdistan ought not to run afoul of Baghdad's dictates on oil exploration.
The friends we spurn, the antagonists and strongmen we court: This is a recurrent theme in American diplomacy. Of late, America's wars in Iraq have lacked for vindication. But look north to the Kurds for a redemption. Before the Obama retreat, a long-suffering people were sheltered by American power, and made the best of their chance.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).