The word for all this is aristocrat. Galbraith’s father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was one of the most famous intellectual figures of the twentieth century, the economic historian whose book The Great Crash 1929 has helped shape the liberal moral imagination for the last 50 years. When Galbraith was 10 years old, President Kennedy appointed his father ambassador to India, during a time when the Americans were welcomed as better friends than the British colonists or the encroaching Chinese. One year later, visiting the Lahore horse show with his father, Peter met the child Benazir Bhutto, who would become his close friend when the two were at Harvard and eventually, after an episode in which the younger Galbraith helped win her release from Karachi Central Jail, the prime minister of Pakistan. (Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.) Galbraith has a photograph from 1962 in which his mother is leading then–prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru around the American embassy; he is serving as the boy escort to Nehru’s daughter Indira (a future prime minister herself), and Indira’s son Rajiv (another future prime minister) is trailing just behind. It is a kind of postcolonial fairy tale.
John Kenneth Galbraith was close to his sons until his death, in 2006, though he was intimidating too: witheringly logical and highly opinionated, six foot eight, with Rushmore features. But he gave his children something to defend. In Jamie’s case this was a critical theory of capitalism. In Peter’s, it was the beginning of a particular idea of how America might operate overseas—allying itself with the powerless, without seeking to remake their world.
In the immediate aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, when the Reagan administration was strongly allied with Saddam Hussein, Galbraith (then a Senate staffer) flew into Kurdistan and emerged with documentation that the Iraqi troops were systematically rounding up and gassing their own people. In the Balkans, he directed the CIA to the mass graves at Srebrenica. As ambassador to Croatia, he gave tacit permission for the Iranians to ship arms through the country to arm the Bosnian Muslims and help turn back the Serb militias; this antagonized the CIA, which accused Galbraith of going rogue and persuaded Congress to hold hearings (Galbraith says he was acting under orders from the Clinton White House). Even his opponents concede that he was preternaturally effective, but he sometimes gave the impression of playing by his own rules.
This was in part because Galbraith had his own relationships and allegiances. For years, for instance, he had been personally close with the Iraqi Kurdish leaders; he had helped give their cause a profile in Washington, and prided himself on the ability to see American policy from their perspective. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, Galbraith supported the invasion and wrote op-eds reminding Americans of Saddam Hussein’s poison-gas campaigns to slaughter his own Kurdish citizens. But as Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Galbraith could see that the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq would not include a separate Kurdish state. “They were seduced by the idea of a noble, nonsectarian, nonethnic Iraq,” Galbraith says, “when in fact the idea of Iraq to the Kurds was repulsive.”
But if the United States would not take up the Kurdish cause, Galbraith himself still could. While away from government service, he consulted for companies and foreign governments to help them develop their own natural resources—first in East Timor, then elsewhere. Now he began to work with a Norwegian oil company, DNO, that was interested in expanding its operations. Galbraith suggested Kurdistan. The legal status of the oil fields was not yet settled—Iraq did not yet have a new constitution—but Galbraith helped convince the Norwegians that any deal that they cut with the Kurds, who held the territory, would likely stick. “We wanted to create facts on the ground,” Galbraith says. For his role, he took an economic interest in DNO’s work in Kurdistan. One of the oil fields turned out to hold large reserves, and published reports have put the value of the stake that Galbraith shares with an investor at $55 million to $75 million. The moralist had become a millionaire.
There was something unseemly about the affair that colored Galbraith’s humanitarian reputation. Because he had not been working for the U.S. government in Iraq, he did not break any rules. But he had spent years making the case for the Kurds, publicly and privately, and urging American policymakers to support Kurdish autonomy. He had even helped shape the Kurdish proposal for the Iraqi constitution. That autonomy, when it came in limited form after the adoption of the Iraqi constitution, served to guarantee DNO’s investment. The Times, where he had published op-eds urging a three-state solution to Iraq, appended a correction last November, saying it “should have disclosed to readers that Mr. Galbraith could benefit financially from an independent Kurdistan that would not have to share oil revenues with Iraq.”