Analysts: US embassy closure could weaken ties with Iraq

Former envoy says shutting down would be major political defeat for Washington, while Foreign Service officer once posted there says go ahead – it’s unsafe for staff.

US Army soldiers keep watch on the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020 (photo credit: DOD/LT. COL. ADRIAN WEALE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
US Army soldiers keep watch on the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020
Closing the US Embassy in Baghdad, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened, would reverse 17 years of US policy, leaving Iraq more vulnerable to Iranian influence and leading to other, substantial regional consequences, analysts say.
Pompeo warned Iraqi President Barham Salih that the US would close the embassy within weeks if Baghdad does not prevent Iran-backed Shi’ite militias from firing rockets at the heavily fortified compound in the Green Zone, according to The New York Times.
August alone, there were more than 20 attacks on the facility, which is so big that it can be seen from space.
When asked if Pompeo would follow through, a State Department spokesperson told The Media Line: “We never comment on the secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders…. However… [as] the United States works to secure financial support for Iraq from the international community and various private-sector businesses, the presence of lawless, Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to additional investment in Iraq.”
Yet some US foreign policy experts say they believe Pompeo will.
“The US has started the preparations to leave, but it does not need to make a final decision until at least January 20,” Michael Knights, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert on Iraq and Iran, told The Media Line, referring to the day the next US administration is sworn in.
Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Quincy Institute, another Washington-based foreign-affairs think tank, agrees.
“It could very well happen,” Adams, who is also a professor emeritus of international relations at American University, told The Media Line.
“The US has been trying to reduce the embassy’s size and footprint,” he explained, adding: “It would, however, mean a further distancing between Washington and Baghdad [as their] relations have become increasingly strained.”
Robert S. Ford, deputy US ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010 and currently a senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute, told the Media Line: “It sounds like it is a serious American warning to the Iraqi government. Will it actually happen? I don't know.”  
Ford, who also served as ambassador to Algeria and Syria, added that if the US mission in Baghdad were to close, it would not happen overnight.
“It is such a vast compound that it would be hard to just pick up and go,” he said.
“There is a lot of sensitive communications gear to remove or destroy, vast numbers of vehicles and storage containers that should be removed or reused elsewhere, and the personal effects of the staff,” he explained. “Ninety days… would allow a more reasonable timeframe.”
Closing the 104-acre compound would also have financial implications. While operating it is expensive, so was building it, costing more than any other embassy at the time.
“When one considers [that] the expense of constructing the embassy was in the neighborhood of $700 million, closing it would be a remarkable thing,” Ford stated. “It only opened in December 2008.”
Not all analysts believe the US is close to shutting its embassy.
“This seems like a bluff to pressure Iraq to take a stronger stand against the militias,” Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University, told The Media Line.
“To withdraw the embassy would be to cut off our nose to spite our face. How on Earth could this help contain Iran or lead anyone to see us as a reliable ally?” he said.
Ford believes that closing the embassy “would be a major political defeat for the US” in the region.
“It would mean that… the Iranians scored a significant victory against the US in the contest for influence in Baghdad,” he said.
He emphasizes, however, that closing the embassy would not mean severing diplomatic ties with Iraq, as Baghdad’s embassy in Washington would remain in place, as would the US Consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan and the US military presence, which provides operational support for anti-Islamic State missions in eastern Syria.
Still, it would hamper US access to Iraqi decision-makers, limiting American influence.
“A consulate in Erbil will not provide Washington with the same kind of platform… to speak directly to Iraqi national government officials and… build networks and relationships that the embassy facility in Baghdad provides,” Ford said.  
The Quincy Institute’s Adams says that shutting down the embassy would be a gesture that epitomizes the new foreign-policy direction of the United States.
“It would be a symbolic statement about the extent to which the US wants to or even can play a major role in the region’s diplomacy,” he explained.
“Countries in the region are adapting to this reduced US role, most recently seen in the UAE and Bahraini recognition of Israel,” he continued. “That step was… very much motivated by a recognition in Saudi Arabia and the [Gulf Cooperation Council] that they needed to deal directly with their own security by settling with Israel in order to confront Iran.”
Adams does not believe a closure would impact Iraq’s standing among its neighbors or hinder its progress in becoming a functioning country.
“I believe that Iraq has been, at best, a minor regional player, so the move will not do much to change its status,” he said. “The Iraqi future will be determined by the Sunni-Shia struggle inside the country. It remains to be seen when real stability will return to the country.”
L, a Foreign Service officer who spent a year at the US Embassy in Baghdad and spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, agrees that shutting the post would have little impact.
“We [US diplomatic personnel] essentially did not leave the Green Zone, so the only interactions we had with Iraqis were the ones who came to us,” L said.
“This is not how diplomacy is supposed to work,” L stated, adding: “I don’t believe my work there made a difference.”
Then there is the security situation.
“It was unsafe [then] and it’s worse now,” L stated.
“The security provided is woefully inadequate – that’s common knowledge. It’s the kind of thing that kept me up at night there,” the Foreign Service officer went on.
“The State Department knows that the embassy is vulnerable to attack, and it’s not taking the necessary steps” to protect the diplomats currently there,” L said.
“I understand that Iraq is a conflict zone, but embassies are supposed to be protected. The State Department is knowingly putting [diplomats] in harm’s way…. If it’s not going to improve security [in a meaningful way], the least it could do is shut the post down.”
The State Department did not answer repeated requests for a response to these allegations in time for publication.
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