Half a 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 American diplomats who devoted their careers to the Middle East in decades past, before Kissinger’s move, the State Department would hire and cultivate those with deep language skills and cultural ties to the region. . Many of the State Department’s most influential Arabists, for example, grew up as the sons of missionaries in the region and were fluent in both the language and the cultural nuances lost to most American officials. The problem with such deep knowledge, Kissinger believed, was that it led to distorted perspectives. Too often, he observed, American diplomats argued on behalf of the country in which rather than for which they served.
Kissinger envisioned a diplomatic corps of highly capable men whom the State Department could use interchangeably. He and his successors 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 become a native. In tough posts like Iraq or Libya, an American diplomat’s tenure could be closer to a year.
While these frequent reshufflings can reduce the clientele, they come at the expense of institutional memory. Take 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 power brokers among Iraqi Shiites. The Sunni leadership is more fluid, largely because its roots are shallower, although any aspiring politician in al-Anbar must pay homage to Mohammed al-Halbusi or the Nujaifi brothers, or even the Kabouli brothers.
Each of these Iraqi personalities has an institutional political memory stretching back decades. The squabbles, fights and trade deals of years past color interactions in ways diplomats new to Baghdad cannot imagine. This is especially true for American diplomats, whose mandate is only a fraction of that of their Iranian or Turkish counterparts and who tend to stay within the walls of the embassy, summoning Iraqis rather than refreshing contacts or to search for Iraqis across the country.
This dynamic distorts reality. Americans inherit both rolodexes and ratings from their predecessors. American biographies of counterparts intended to prepare diplomats for meetings are legendary. If an Iraqi politician sneezes in a meeting, the CIA assessment read by American diplomats twenty years later could 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 work chronicling human rights abuses. This may have been true for Kadhimi before he came to power, but today it is cut off from reality. Kadhimi is directly responsible for the regression of press freedom in Iraq. To pretend otherwise is simply playing Kadhimi’s game. Likewise, while the interim Iraqi prime minister projects an image of close cooperation with Western intelligence agencies, he cultivates close ties with Iran behind the scenes and, at a minimum, trades Iranian support for his tenure with promises of inaction.
An American tendency to read sincerity in stage-managed cases compounds the inaccuracy. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, for example, is famous for its sumptuous sandwiches for visiting US officials that literally could feed a village. During these dinners and meetings, the Barzanis will criticize Iran and disparage various political leaders and Shia militias. When the visiting American has a sufficient rank, the Barzanis will discuss their hope for a more Western-oriented Iraqi Kurdistan with more than $75,000 worth of bottles of whiskey and cigars, even as they plead poverty to those whose wages they do not pay. Students I taught more than two decades ago who attend such meetings as translators, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but also throughout Iraq, tell me how these same politicians often ridicule their American interlocutors. when they leave the room. Iraqi politicians generally regard meetings with American diplomats or other visitors as a chore. Real business in Iraq is not done in an office but rather at home, often after midnight. Sometimes Iranian diplomats are present; American diplomats are rarely, if ever, invited into the room.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, who represents the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington but really only represents the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its business interests, completes the illusion by projecting the image of an empowered and progressive woman even as she is complicit in a family in which bigamy and honor killings are far too common. Note to US officials: If the Barzanis are progressive and Western-oriented, where are their wives? Where are their daughters?
The Barzanis will also strengthen their influence by working with alumni of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, whom they dangle shares in lucrative oil companies and other partnerships. The Barzanis do not demand Richard Olson-style corruption among the diplomats in office. Instead, they expect self-censorship and then calibrate opportunities based on the actions these former officials took while in government service.
Fast forward to the current political crisis in Iraq. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a scion of a clerical family in Najaf, has sought to redefine himself as a reformer, though this has always been tenuous. While few if any Iraqis anticipated his decision to order the resignation of his parliamentary plurality, his political volatility and frequent policy reversals still warrant taking his positions with a grain of salt. Nor was it wise to believe that Sadr was an anti-corruption crusader. Aside from the opacity of his own finances as well as his forcible seizure of prime real estate in Najaf. No official who truly values clean government or seeks to fight corruption would ally himself with the Barzanis, Iraq’s most corrupt family.
Sadr’s initial action, a law requiring the death penalty for those who meet or seek normalization with Israel, is a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. At the 1991 Madrid Conference, for example, even d Ardent supporters of Syrian rejection sat down with Israelis to talk peace. That the Barzanis are Sadr’s main allies should be cause for introspection in Washington. That the Barzanis later signaled that they would even accept Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Corps trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as Iraqi Prime Minister as long as he can get them the majority needed to install their own choice as president, should still sound the alarm.
America’s so-called friends in Iraq take Washington for fools. It is time to put an end to such games. The path to a moderate and responsible Baghdad does not pass through Erbil. Moreover, Barzani’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans should clarify the US position: a Kurdistan Democratic Party presidency in Baghdad would be a grave danger to US interests throughout the country.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.