As the last American troops prepared to leave Iraq, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promised, “Even as our troops come home, the United States' commitment to Iraq's future as a secure, stable, democratic nation remains as strong as ever.”
Almost a year later, her promise has not come true. American diplomats remain isolated behind the walls of the embassy. They seldom venture into Baghdad, let alone outside the capital. They will never smoke shishah at one of the new restaurants aside the Tigris, enjoy masgouf on Abu Nawas Street, or even eat pacha in Karrada. Most only meet Iraqis who venture inside the fortified U.S. embassy. This means that American diplomats are, in effect, hostages of their limited set of contacts; they cannot confirm information on their own or talk with ordinary Iraqis.
While this is not news for Iraqis who regularly ridicule the bubble that the International Zone has become, the American misunderstanding of Iraq is not the fault of Americans alone. While American diplomats cite security to explain their lack of outreach, the Iraqi government has an equal communication problem in Washington.
Navigating Washington can be more complicated than traversing Baghdad. While diplomacy in Iraq is a formal affair, in the United States most diplomacy occurs outside the embassy and the State Department. For the first time since Saddam’s downfall, Iraq may have an ambassador who enjoys the Prime Minister’s confidence, it is also important that Iraqi diplomats speak English fluently. Admittedly, this is cultural hypocrisy: Few Americans serving in Baghdad speak Arabic well.
The job of Iraqi diplomats should not only be to engage with American diplomats, the Pentagon, and the White House, but also to reach out to American journalists, think tank analysts, and Congressional staff. It is here where the Iraqi government fails.
The State Department may implement policy, but Congress often creates it. There is no better example of this than the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, from which historians can trace the decision to oust Saddam Hussein. It is therefore essential that the Iraqi government cultivate close relations with Congress if Iraq hopes to get its message across on issues ranging from the verdict against Tariq al-Hashemi, Syria, the disputed territories, and the oil law.
Diplomats are not enough. Both the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi lobby Congress and the American media. Because of the American experience with both Iran and Hezbollah, anti-Shi‘ite and anti-Maliki bias permeates Washington. This makes it even more essential the Iraqi government makes its voice heard in Washington. With Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari governments preaching sectarian message and Maliki’s Iraqi opponents denouncing him to American officials at every opportunity, even Iraq’s traditional friends in Congress have begun to turn against it.
Iraq is an independent country; it is not an American puppet. It lives in a tough neighborhood and faces real threats, not only from a renewed Al Qaeda presence in Syria and a continued Turkish occupation in northernmost Iraq, but also from an Iranian leadership which confuses religion with nationalism and treats Iraq as a subordinate state. How tragic it is then that the only voice not heard consistently in Washington is that of the Iraqi government.