Tag: nouri al maliki

Pottery Barn Rule, Take 27

Last week, Iraq’s independent electoral commission disqualified 511 candidates – most of them Sunnis – from running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Today’s Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden is hurrying off to Baghdad to try to convince the Iraqis to change their minds. U.S. troop withdrawals were supposed to accelerate after the elections were held and a new government seated. But the elections have already been postponed at least once, and the administration is worried that the obvious bias against Sunnis could stoke sectarian tensions.

“U.S. officials are in a precarious position,” the Post story explains:

They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered – a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs – and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.

If that weren’t difficult enough, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be pressuring the Iraqis, and Prime Minister Maliki and his crew don’t want to appear to have been pressured. As a senior administration official told the Post:

“[N]o one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists” and no Iraqi decision-maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.

It is times like these when I am reminded of Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule. Never mind that he never publicly invoked that precise metaphor. Never mind that Pottery Barn has no rule. The point is that the average person understands the simple premise: you break it, you own it.

But what Powell actually told President George W. Bush in August 2002, if Bob Woodward’s reconstruction of the event is to be trusted, is actually more insightful and telling than the shorthand version. And it is particularly a propos with respect to the most-recent election kerfuffle.

“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems. You’ll own it all.”

We “own” the Iraqis without wanting to appear to own them. We are responsible for the behavior of the government that we put into power, but without the leverage (or inclination) to compel that government to do as we see fit. And we – all Americans, but especially the troops still stuck in that country – pay the price when they behave in ways harmful to our strategic interests. 

As the teenagers might say, “Good luck with that.”

Time to Cut Back Boondoggle Embassy in Iraq

The Bush administration has many legacies.  One is the more than $700 million U.S. embassy, set on 104 acres, only slightly smaller than the Vatican’s land holdings, in Baghdad.  It was an embassy designed for an imperial power intent on ruling a puppet state.

It turns out that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t plan on being anyone’s puppet.  U.S. troops have come out of the cities and will be coming home in coming months.  Provincial reconstruction teams also will be leaving.  The Bush administration’s plan for maintaining scores of bases for use in attacking Iran or other troublesome Middle Eastern states is stillborn.  And Prime Minister Maliki isn’t likely to ask for Washington’s advice on what kind of society U.S. officials want him to create.

So just what should the Obama administration do with this White Elephant on the Euphrates?  Cut it down, says the State Department’s own Inspector General.

Reports the Washington Post:

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad – the United States’ largest and most costly overseas diplomatic mission, with 1,873 employees – is overstaffed and must be reduced to a size more in keeping with the evolving U.S.-Iraq relationship and budget constraints, government auditors said in a report issued Wednesday.

The State Department’s inspector general said that although the U.S. presence in Iraq will become more civilian as the military withdraws over the next two years, the embassy “should be able to carry out all of its responsibilities with significantly fewer staff and in a much-reduced footprint.” The reduction “has to begin immediately,” the report said, before Foreign Service officers complete their next assignment bidding cycle and other employees are extended or hired.

The U.S. should be preparing to have a normal relationship with Iraq.  That includes maintaining a normal embassy.