- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He was responding to ongoing attacks against the building and the Iraqi government’s apparent inability to do much about it.
It’s hard to judge whether there are other ways for the United States to protect the embassy—or whether Pompeo’s threat is designed to achieve some other diplomatic end. But the embassy should be shut down regardless. Whatever the motivations for Pompeo’s idea, it’s a good one on the merits.
To the extent that any Americans think about Iraq or the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad these days, they likely envision a building, but it is much more than that. The compound, which is only slightly smaller than Disneyland, features 20 office buildings, six apartment blocks, and various amenities for the staff, which at one time numbered 16,000. The tab for the complex’s completion was $750 million. It is the physical manifestation of American hubris in Iraq. And, unlike Disneyland, no dreams came true there.
The next administration should shut down the compound and hand it over to the Iraqis. The grounds would make a fine addition to the University of Baghdad.
Getting rid of the current embassy complex in Baghdad does not mean that the United States should abandon the city altogether. The State Department floated the idea of moving the U.S. ambassador to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, but that won’t do: It would seem too odd for the U.S. ambassador to continue making the case for a unified Iraq if they sit in the capital of the Kurdish region. Instead, Washington should buy a building in Baghdad that is commensurate with its actual mission, role, and influence in Iraq. If the existing complex speaks to the arrogance of the past two decades, a new home for the embassy would symbolize American humility after a misbegotten invasion and occupation. (It is too bad that the old embassy that Josep Lluís Sert designed in the 1950s was seized by the Iraqi government and turned into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was appropriately modest and a midcentury gem.)
It is true that there is not much left for the United States to do in Iraq. American officials made Iraqi political and economic reform part of the recently convened strategic dialogue between the two countries, but it is hard to take these goals seriously. It has been more than 17 years since the invasion of Iraq, and there is no reason to believe that the United States will be met with any greater success now than it was before. The Iraqis are going to have chart their own way if they want decent politics and a prosperous economy.
There is, however, an important mission that the United States should sustain in Iraq: security, specifically the related efforts to keep extremists at bay and ensure Iraqi sovereignty. These goals are intertwined with each other, and they require significant American attention. It is true that Mosul was liberated in July 2017 and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in Syria in October 2019, but there was an Islamic State attack on police forces in Kirkuk this week, and the group is active in Diyala and Salahuddin governorates. U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated declarations concerning the defeat of the Islamic State are simply not accurate.
The Iraqi security forces are better than they were when their personnel cut and ran in 2014, but they still have a fight on their hands. One can understand the desire to finally pull up stakes in Iraq, but not only does the United States have some responsibility to Iraqis, but also no one will want to go back once U.S. forces leave. In the upside-down logic of America’s encounter with Iraq, the best way to get out of the country and stay out is to stay longer. To some that might sound like a recipe for a slippery slope to endless occupation, but that is not the case. The United States only has about 3,000 military personnel in the country. The United States couldn’t effectively occupy the country with 50 times that number during the height of President George W. Bush’s surge. A relatively modest training mission in Iraq is an occupation only if one is politically disposed to seeing one.
The far more challenging aspect of the security mission is helping to put the Iraqi military and other security forces in a position to protect Iraq’s sovereignty. Currently, the Turkish armed forces, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) through various militias, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, as well as American forces all operate in Iraq. There is very little the Iraqis can do about any of them, but the most egregious of these is Iran. It is entirely rational for the Iranians to want to influence Iraqi politics, but a consequence of that is the vassalization of Iraq.
Among the instruments the Iranians use to further their agenda are militias that are affiliated with the IRGC. They played an important role in parallel to Iraqi security forces and Americans in the biggest battles against the Islamic State, but they have not been integrated into Iraq’s chain of command and have not laid down their arms. Instead, groups like Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, plus a dozen more, remain instruments of Iranian power. They are the ones responsible for attacks on the American embassy, using snipers against protesters, advancing the IRGC’s economic interests, and intimidating the Iraqi government. Not only is this a security threat, but it also contributes to Iraq’s perverse politics.
The Iraqis will remain vulnerable to the Iranians as long as Iraq’s security forces do not have the capability and confidence to assert their authority. It is also a question of political will, but the Iraqis now have a prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who seems willing to try to rein in Iran’s agents. In June he oversaw the arrest of nearly a dozen members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah for planning attacks around Baghdad. In response, the militia detained family members of military officers involved in the raid and detention of their comrades and, in a show of force, rolled through the Green Zone in armored vehicles. The militiamen were quickly released. In late July, one of Kadhimi’s advisors, Hisham al-Hashimi, was assassinated in a hit widely believed to be the work of Iran’s agents in Iraq. Clearly, the effort to bring militias to heel has not worked. In many ways, the security situation has deteriorated, and the routine targeting of American forces in the country has remained a significant challenge for U.S. commanders. As a result, the Trump administration has consolidated the American presence in Iraq and withdrawn troops.
Trump clearly wants to get out of Iraq and the Middle East more broadly, but he should leave U.S. troop levels where they are. Although a military withdrawal fulfills a promise the president made during the 2016 election, it is ultimately counterproductive. Leaving Iraqis to the dangers of the Islamic State and the will of the Iranians would only perpetuate Iraq’s weakness and instability, handing Tehran a strategic victory. The United States a little more patience in Iraq. But that’s not a mission that an obnoxiously enormous embassy will much help with.