How They’re Playing in Baghdad

How sensitive will Iraqis be to the presidential race?

Gen. David Petraeus with Ryan Crocker. Click image to expand.
Gen. David Petraeus with Ryan Crocker

America’s ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, is a decorated diplomat skilled in the gentle phrasing of statecraft. But even a veteran like Crocker will have trouble softening the message from members of Congress to Iraqi leaders. Politicians in both parties suggested this week that the Iraqi officials are lazy, greedy bums: They won’t stand up to defend their country, and they’re hoarding their oil revenues, letting the U.S. foot the bill for the country’s reconstruction. After two days of tough questioning in Congress, Crocker will now face a version of the same in Baghdad.  “I’m going to go back to some level of frustration,” he said, channeling the reaction he expected from Iraqis. “Good God we’re doing the best we can… There is some sense of national identity and national pride. To hear that they’re deliberately not stepping forward, whether it’s in security or economic development, really does hurt.”

Crocker wasn’t complaining. He was simply assessing. (The career Foreign Service officer is so measured, it’s hard to imagine him whining about anything). The Ambassador was answering a question about how Iraqi leaders would react to American political pressure. “Everybody gets frustrated,” he said. “America is frustrated, understandably so. I’m frustrated trying to get stuff done. Iraqis get frustrated too. It’s hard for them. It’s not like they want the state to collapse or utterly fail, the parliament to deadlock and everything to go to hell, they don’t, but this is tough stuff carried out in conditions for them of extreme difficulty and danger.”

Crocker met with a small group of reporters and columnists Friday afternoon in a windowless conference room at the State Department. He talked about his travels next week, where he will try to convince Arab nations to do more to help Iraq (Currently no Arab state even has an ambassador there). He also downplayed the conflict with Congress over the Status of Forces Agreement. Democrats fear that the Bush administration will bind future administrations to long-term military obligations in Iraq without consulting Congress. “There is not going to be a valid objection,” from Congress, he predicted. Democrats are not likely to agree. Strenuously.

Crocker said he was struck, but not surprised, by the extent to which the Congressional hearings focused on the cost of the Iraq operation and how upset lawmakers were that the U.S. is still footing so much of the bill when the Iraqi government has cash to chip in. He said he got the message loud and clear but argued, as he did in the hearings, that the problem with progress in Iraq is not money, but the lack of infrastructure to improve quality of life at a rapid rate.

One of Crocker’s main goals in Washington this week was to outline the chaos that he thinks would ensue if the U.S. leaves too early. As we listened around an enormous granite conference table, he reiterated his take on the “vicious spiral” that would occur if America withdraws. “Good God, it’s not going to end the war,” he said of a withdrawal, “it’s going to give you a war of significantly increased proportions.”

As Crocker answered questions about the intersection between U.S. politics and Iraqi policy it became clear that if you follow Crocker’s logic, the spiral won’t begin the minute a new Democratic president calls for a withdrawal of troops, but perhaps a good deal earlier, as Iraqis make their bets on how the elections will turn out. Crocker described what would happen if Iraqis were to start thinking the U.S. was on the way out. “If the Iraqis think we aren’t staying,” he said, “then the spirit of compromise goes away because it gets too damn risky. People will start to worry about community survival.” Worried that the Americans might leave, Iraqis at all levels will turn back to their local militias or tribal allegiances for protection. Or, Iraqis will cling more certainly to the comfortable tribal allegiances making reconciliation and power-sharing harder.

If Iraqis are this hypersensitive—and it seems reasonable to conclude that they are, from the life-and-death stakes alone—then Iraq is going to become a nation of presidential pundits. If you look at things Crocker’s way, as soon as it becomes clear the Democrat is going to win and a withdrawal is inevitable, Iraq will fall into the chaos he describes. (This line of thinking will some day presumably allow a brazen McCain supporter to link a Democratic lead in the polls to an uptick in violence). But this isn’t the only plausible interpretation. It may be that if Iraqis read the field and bet on a Democratic winner, they’ll snap into focus, as many of Bush’s critics say only will only happen as the result of a pull out. Under withdrawal pressure, they might be motivated to support a government crackdown on the militias and make compromises. In that case, despite his predictions, Crocker’s job would actually get easier in his final months.