America’s ‘Friends’ in Iraq Play U.S. Officials for Fools
The State Department’s stale and overwrought strategy leaves diplomats unprepared for reality on the ground in Iraq.
A half-century ago, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reconfigured the State Department to devalue regional expertise. As Robert Kaplan detailed in The Arabist, his masterful account of the American diplomats who dedicated their careers to the Middle East in decades past, prior to Kissinger’s move, the State Department would hire and cultivate those who had deep linguistic knowledge and cultural ties to the region. Many of the most influential State Department Arabists, for example, grew up as the sons of missionaries in the region and were fluent in both the language and cultural nuances lost on most American officials. The problem with such deep knowledge, Kissinger believed, was that it led to warped perspectives. Too often, he observed, American diplomats would advocate on behalf of the country in which rather than for which they served.
Kissinger envisioned a diplomatic corps staffed by highly capable men whom the State Department could use interchangeably. He and his successors have generally limited the tenure of American diplomats to two or three years in any country, long enough to develop expertise but not too long to go native. In hardship posts like Iraq or Libya, an American diplomat’s tenure might be closer to a single year.
While such frequent shuffles may reduce clientitis, they come at the expense of institutional memory. Consider Iraq, where the political elite has been stable since 2003. The Barzani and Talabani families dominate Iraqi Kurdistan, while Nouri al-Maliki, Muqtada al-Sadr, Hadi al-Ameri, and, to a lesser extent, Ammar al-Hakim and Haider Abad, remain powerbrokers among Iraqi Shia. The Sunni leadership is more fluid, largely because its roots are shallower, though any aspiring politician in al-Anbar must pay homage to Mohammed al-Halbusi or the Nujaifi brothers, if no longer the Kabouli brothers.
Each of these Iraqi figures has an institutional political memory going back decades. Feuds, fights, and business deals from years past color interactions in a way that diplomats new to Baghdad cannot fathom. This is especially true with American diplomats, whose tenure is just a fraction of their Iranian or Turkish counterparts and who tend to remain within the embassy walls, summoning Iraqis to them rather than refreshing contacts or seeking out Iraqis across the country.
This dynamic distorts reality. Americans inherit both rolodexes and assessments from their predecessors. American biographies of counterparts meant to prepare diplomats for meetings are legendary. If an Iraqi politician sneezes during a meeting, the CIA assessment read by American diplomats twenty years later might still conclude that he has a cold. To use a specific example, Americans may see Mustafa al-Kadhimi as a Western-oriented liberal based on his anti-Saddam activism and his work chronicling human rights abuses. That may have been true of Kadhimi before he was in power, but today it is divorced from reality. Kadhimi is directly responsible for the regression of press freedom in Iraq. To pretend otherwise simply plays into Kadhimi’s hands. Likewise, while the interim Iraqi prime minister projects an image of close cooperation with Western intelligence agencies, he cultivates close ties to Iran behind the scenes and, at a minimum, trades Iranian support for his tenure with promises of inaction.
An American tendency to read sincerity into stage-managed affairs compounds inaccuracy. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, for example, is famous for lavish spreads laid out for visiting American officials that, quite literally, could feed a village. During these dinners and meetings, the Barzanis will criticize Iran and badmouth various Shia political and militia leaders. When the visiting American is of sufficient rank, the Barzanis will discuss their hope for a more Western-oriented Iraqi Kurdistan over $75,000 bottles of whiskey and cigars, even as they plead poverty to those whose salaries they default on. Students I taught more than two decades ago who are present at such meetings as translators, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but also in Iraq as a whole, tell me how these same politicians often ridicule their American interlocutors when they step out of the room. Iraqi politicians generally look at meetings with American diplomats or other visitors as a chore. The real business in Iraq gets done not in an office but rather at home, often after midnight. Sometimes Iranian diplomats are present; seldom if ever are American diplomats invited into the room.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, who represents the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington but in reality only represents the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its business interests, completes the illusion by projecting an image of an empowered, progressive woman even as she shills for a family in which bigamy and honor killings are far too common. Note to American officials: if the Barzanis are progressive and Western-oriented, where are their wives? Where are their daughters?
The Barzanis will also further their influence by working with alumni of the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, to whom they dangle shares in lucrative oil companies and other partnerships. The Barzanis do not demand Richard Olson-style corruption among sitting diplomats. Instead, they expect self-censorship and then calibrate opportunities to the actions these former officials took while in government service.
Fast forward to Iraq’s current political crisis. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the scion of a Najaf clerical family, sought to recast himself as a reformer, though this was always tenuous. While few if any Iraqis foresaw his decision to order his parliamentary plurality to resign, his political volatility and frequent policy reversals always merit taking his positions with a grain of salt. Nor was it wise to believe Sadr was an anti-corruption crusader. Put aside the opacity of his own finances as well as his seizure by force of prime Najaf real estate. No official who truly prizes clean government or seeks to fight corruption would ally with the Barzanis, Iraq’s most corrupt family.
Sadr’s departing action, a law demanding the death penalty for those who would meet with or seek normalization with Israel, is a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1991 Madrid Conference, for example, even ardent Syrian rejectionists sat with Israelis to talk peace. That the Barzanis were Sadr’s chief allies should be cause for introspection in Washington. That the Barzanis subsequently signaled that they would even accept Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-trained Badr Corps, as Iraq’s prime minister so long as he can get them the majority needed to install their own pick as president, should raise alarm further.
America’s so-called friends in Iraq play Washington for fools. It is time to put an end to such games. The path to a moderate, responsible Baghdad does not pass through Erbil. Further, Barzani’s backroom shenanigans should clarify the U.S. position: a Kurdistan Democratic Party presidency in Baghdad would be a grave danger to American interests throughout the country.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.