Transcript: Q&A with Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion

Partial transcript of Q&A with Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 21, 2013:

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
It appears to me that Iraq today is a tinderbox with red hot embers inside. Fundamental disputes over the allocation of political power and oil revenue that still have not been resolved, and now it seems that the government is crumbling. Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, a Sunni, won’t leave Anbar province and come to Baghdad because he fears he’ll be arrested. Foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, has also been boycotting government meetings in the capitol, remaining in the Kurdish-controlled north. And ministers who represent the Sadrist movement have announced their intention to also boycott the government in recent days…

Is Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki turning himself into an autocrat, taking a page from Saddam’s playbook?

Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq:
…Iraq is haunted by its past. Nouri al-Maliki is haunted by his past, both recent and not so recent, in my view. He came out of a clandestine movement that was severely persecuted under the Saddam years. He thinks with that mindset – “They’re all out to get me” – and that conditions his behavior. It is said in Iraq, including by the Prime Minister, that only two men successfully governed Iraq: Hajjaj bin Yusuf…and Saddam Hussein. It is a very, very tough country to govern.

I don’t think by any means al-Maliki is trying to be the next Saddam Hussein. The politics and conditions of Iraq won’t let it. I think he’s afraid that he’d be the next Abd al-Karim Qasim, who overthrew the monarchy in 1958 and who was a pretty able political figure – making deals, breaking deals, bestowing favor, withdrawing favor, bringing down the hammer – but eventually it all got away from him.

So I think to read Prime Minister al-Maliki correctly, the best perspective is someone who is playing defense, who’s trying to stay in power, who is trying not to go the same route as al-Karim Qasim.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
…Obviously much concern about the relationship that has been forged over the past several years between Baghdad and Tehran. So Ambassador Crocker, give us your sense of the true nature of the Iran-Iraq relationship today.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
Well, if I could give you an accurate assessment of the true nature of the relationship between Iran and Iraq today, I would be elevated to a celestial status… [Laughter]

It’s a highly complex relationship. I think that there can be no question following the withdraw of all U.S. troops in 2011 and, to speak frankly, I think a weaning of U.S. engagement at other levels, it has shifted a balance so that Iranian influence now in Iraq is greater and ours is less. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

But at the same time, I do not buy into the tendency in the West and in the United States that Iran calls the shots and gives the orders because it is one, a Shia government in Tehran under the Islamic Republic dealing with another Shia government in Iraq. I think the difference is that we often lose sight of between Arab and Persian, the, again, history, history, history – the bloody history between Iraq and Iran. The brutal war of the 1980s, which we tend to have forgotten but no Iraqi or Iranian ever will, remain fresh in the memory of both countries. Iraq is, whether Sunni or Shia, in its Arab population profoundly an Arab state and for many years was at vanguard of their nationalism. So I think we’re going through an interval here, where because of the lack of a regional or international balance, Iran has disproportionate influence in Iraq but I think the farther they press that influence, as I saw even during my own time there, the more Iraqis tend to push back and resent it. So I would see probably a prolonged period where this will play out. Iranian overreach, though, is going to produce an Iraqi backlash. They will have influence; they will not have control.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
…It’s been 15 months since our last combat forces drove out of the country though there are some very robust diplomatic presence – very large embassy that you know very well, Ambassador Crocker. We still have some military personnel doing some arms sale and training there, and our intelligence community has individuals on the ground. Help us understand from your perspective, Iraq-U.S. relations today. I guess I’d like to start – if you might just offer some thought on if the sofa process had turned out differently – if we had, let’s say, 10,000 U.S. troops in the country today, would things be appreciably different? Would Iraq’s relationship with Iran be different? Would it be dealing with Syria any differently? If we had a military presence on the ground today in the thousands, would that give us any meaningful leverage of the politics of the country?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
Well, I would defer, obviously in good part, to Ambassador Sumaida’ie for an Iraqi perspective. But it seems to me that had those security negotiation succeeded and we had, say, a presence along those numbers, you know, that’s not enough to make a military difference nor should it be but I think it would be a powerful signal in Iraq to Iran and in the region that the United States is engaged, involved, interested, and effective. And I think it would have re-shaped calculations in capitols, starting with Baghdad, in Tehran, and right around the region. Again, this is the military as it were as a political presence, as a signal of U.S. engagement and involvement.

During my time in Iraq, in addition to the first security agreement, we negotiated the long-term strategic partnership agreement. That was intended to send that very signal. It was predicated on the assumption, which I think at the time both governments in the United States and in Iraq shared, that there would be a successor security agreement. The intent on both sides was to signal for the first time since the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy that Iraq was going to be a strategic partner of the U.S. in particular and the West in general. That agreement still exists; it’s still in force. But I think the full withdrawal of the U.S. military except for the small contingent left for training and equipping reduced our leverage.

And I would say one other thing. You can still have substantial leverage in international politics without military forces. I am not sure that we have taken full advantage of those opportunities, and I hope very much as we enter a second Obama administration that the administration is going to have a greater and deeper focus on the importance of Iraq and engage Iraq more fully, more frequently, and at higher levels because we have seen what happens when the relationship deteriorates as it did after ’58 and particularly under Saddam. We do not want to go back to those days. So with our military leverage gone, I think we need to take full advantage of the strategic partnership agreement to increase our political leverage – you know, not to make Iraq do things – but to demonstrate to Iraq that it has a partner, it has an ally, it has options other than looking to Iran for all the reasons that Emma Sky just laid out.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
As you know so well there’s a limited bandwidth in Washington in dealing with these sorts of issues. And a part of the tragedy of Afghanistan – a country you also know well – was that, you know, we turned so much of our attention to Iraq in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and we now flipped it and with the administration’s great focus on Afghanistan over the past as well as a broader set of issues has come at a cost in terms of dealing with Iraq.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
Well, as has been said in the past, we can – we are a great power and we can actually do more than one thing at one time. I think there may be a bandwidth issue but that is an attention issue rather than a capacity issue. Because, again, we are not talking about the deployment of divisions; we are talking about simply taking Iraq seriously as our agreement says it should be taken and having the level of senior diplomatic engagement that sends that signal in Baghdad and in the region, and I hope very much we’ll see that because it’s been somewhat absent in recent years.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
What’s the clearest way to do that? I mean, is it – we talked a little bit about carrots. Is it time to reevaluate the arms sales to the Maliki government at this point?

Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
I think it’s time, Rajiv, to engage in a serious, sustained high-level manner. And through that engagement exert greater influence, frankly, with all the parties. I think they can all use it. And to use as your structure for that, the strategic framework agreement because it is about institutions – their strengthening, their endurance – as well as it is about cooperation in a variety of fields that are benefit to Iraq as well as the United States.

We have a very able Ambassador in Baghdad right now but the nature of the relationship – the recollection of the Iraqis over how it used to be with the routine high-level engagement, I think, suggest strongly that – to get at just the points that Samir and Emma have raised – you know, we’ve got to up our game here. I would very much like to see the Secretary of State make an early visit to Iraq. In the previous administration, for a variety of reasons, not all of them foreign policy related, the Secretary of State didn’t visit. I would love it if the Secretary of Defense visit Iraq. Secretaries of Defense routinely visit countries where we don’t have troops deployed but it would certainly get everybody guessing, wouldn’t it? I would like, in a similar vein, to see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visit. And these kinds of visits then provide a framework to get at questions like, you know, balances, institutions versus individuals, arm sales and their conditions, and some useful words of advice both to those in the ascendancy and to those in the opposition because I think all parties need it.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
If I could just add to that, I agree entirely with Ambassador Sumaida’ie’s assessment of Muqtada al-Sadr that he himself doesn’t know what he’s doing the day after tomorrow. Sadly, assassination can be very effective and the 1999 assassination of Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr and his two older sons, who were both being groomed for leadership, has had a lasting and negative impact on Iraqi politics as has the assassination of Abdul Majid al-Khoei in 2003, presumably at the hands or on the orders of Muqtada al-Sadr. So in the Sadr family, one stood not only for a moderate form of Shia-ism but for Iraqi and Arab nationalism. We are now down to the very shallow end of the Sadr gene pool. [Laughter] There was a period…in 2008 when the hope was what you articulated – that Sadr, drawing on that family heritage, would make that outreach as an Arab nationalist over the sectarian divide to the Sunnis. It never really happened – to the immense relief of the Kurds, and therein lies the complexity of all of this. You can manage to make two out of three reasonably content but getting three out of three has eluded us and the Iraqis for the last decade and Iraq for about the last century.

Ambassador Sumaida’ie makes another good point on the region, and I’d just like to come back to with respect to the U.S. You know, not only do I believe we need to be more effectively and decisively engaged within Iraq, I think we need to be more effectively and decisively engaged in the region on behalf of Iraq.

I made the rounds as Ambassador to Iraq’s Arab neighbors with the, I thought, pretty persuasive talking point that if your concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq, well then why don’t you re-open your embassies, have your foreign ministers visit, invite Iraqi officials to your capitols, and you know, push back Persian influence with Arab influence. Well, it persuaded me but it persuaded no one else. [Laughter] But as the region changes through the Arab Spring, I think this is, again, a time for more active U.S. diplomacy in the region, again, in support of Iraq.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
I think it would be a safe assumption that the three of you would be in favor of a more secular Iraqi government in the future and certainly the results of the Iraqi in the last election are not lost on all of us. But as one looks toward that as an aspiration, is the better approach one that actually seeks to build institutions and promote the notion of a more secular form of government and essentially seeks to empower and assist leaders with more secular tendencies? Or is the reality that we are going to be facing for the foreseeable sectarian and ethnically divided politics and that the path to some form of greater political stability has to simply involve working with and facilitating a degree of negotiated political compromise within the factions and say, “Look, the idea that you’re going to get enough individuals from the principal constituency into some sort of big tent is unrealistic and really it’s got to be more progress on the sharing and distribution of oil revenue, a more equitable distribution of political power, recognizing that we are in this religiously and ethnically fractured society and it’s a challenge of seeking to build the appropriate compromise?

Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
…I think it’s a bit of both. First, recognizing reality for what it is in Iraq today. You know, we’ve had our utopian visions for Iraq. Hasn’t worked out well – not for Iraqis and not for ourselves. So again first we need to recognize reality and then see how we can work with that reality to build a better future for Iraqis.

I do not think the United States should be in a position in Iraq or elsewhere as taking a position in principle that we oppose religiously-based parties by definition and we’ll only favor secular parties. I think that’s highly dangerous.

In a religious party, whether it be Dawa on the Shia side or the Iraqi Islamic Party on the Sunni side, that is contrary to a nationalist vision for Iraq, it’s the way events and personalities – and the emphasis on personalities that I think Emma brought out is extremely important – has evolved, has created some of these problems. I think we’ve got to be very careful how we approach that.

Again, not only because I negotiated it, I think the strategic framework agreement gives us both that vehicle to move forward. Set aside the identity of parties and focus on the development of institutions, the development of a pluralistic approach, the knowledge that Iraq ultimately succeeds as a whole or fail on its parts and move on from there. But that requires, again, a level of senior U.S. engagement that we haven’t seen and we badly need.

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2 Comments on “Transcript: Q&A with Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Q&A with Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion | What The Folly?!

  2. Pingback: Transcript: Opening remarks by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post, on the 10th year anniversary of the Iraq War | What The Folly?!

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