The Cable

Was Obama's Iraq intervention a success or not?

Top Obama administration officials Thursday lauded Iraq's latest efforts to form new government and defended their intensive efforts to help push through the deal, even though their proposal was very different from the agreement that it appears Iraqi leaders have reached.

"We've worked very hard in recent months with the Iraqis to achieve one basic result, and that's a government that's inclusive, that reflects the results of the elections, that includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon. "And that's exactly what the Iraqis seem to have agreed to do."

The White House and the State Department have been walking a very fine line when talking about their involvement in Iraqi political negotiations. The administration has often stated that it does not seek to impose any specific solution on the Iraqis, but at the same time has been working behind the scenes on behalf of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which received the most seats in Iraq's March parliamentary elections, but not enough to form a government on its own.

The United States has a direct interest in maintaining whatever influence it can in Baghdad as U.S. troops leave Iraq, in a bid to counter Iranian attempts to push Iraqi politics toward a more Shiite and religious bent. That's a tricky balancing act for the White House, which wants to claim credit for its involvement while simultaneously appearing neutral and keeping the responsibility of deal making in the hands of Iraqi politicians. The still-evolving agreement between all of Iraq's major political players would keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in their posts, while allotting Allawi's Iraqiya slate the position of Speaker of the Parliament and the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policies. Saleh al-Mutlak, one of Iraqiya's most prominent figures, is also being floated as a potential foreign minister in the new unity government.

The New York Times reported Thursday afternoon that Allawi's slate walked out of Thursday's parliamentary session after failing to score a vote on a series of demands. But if the Iraqi politicians are successful in ironing out the details and forming their government, the Obama administration stands ready to endorse the deal. However, it doesn't want the credit for brokering the agreement.

"The most important thing about what happened in Baghdad today is that this is a government that is made in Iraq," the official said. "It was not the result of the influence or work of any outside actor, any outside country. The decisions that the Iraqis reached, they reached themselves. They negotiated very difficult issues themselves, and they came to an agreement."

In fact, however, top administration officials were deeply involved in the negotiations, especially toward the very end. The official spoke of personal efforts by Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries and others. In recent days, Obama spoke personally with Talabani, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Allawi (but not al-Maliki, notably).

The Washington Times revealed that Obama personally asked both Talabani and Barzani to cede the presidency to Allawi, a request that the Kurdish leaders flatly rejected. "And for the United States to be leaning on us, as they are now, in effect handpicking the new leaders of Iraq, is not respectful of Iraq's parliamentary system and touches on all of the insecurities of the Kurds, that the United States will once again betray us," Qubad Talabani, Jalal's son and the KRG's representative in Washington, told the Washington Times.

The senior administration official confirmed that Obama had floated the idea to the Kurds, but said it was only one of the various permutations put forth in the hope of convincing Allawi to join the new government.

"In the case of Iraqiya and Dr. Allawi, one of the things they had been saying for some time was an interest in the presidency after they gave up on what they believed was their right to be prime minister, which was a significant compromise by them," the official said. "And so we've had conversations, many of us, with Iraqis, exploring all of these different options. And one of the options certainly was for the Kurds to think about taking a position other than the presidency, which would have opened the presidency for Dr. Allawi."

Iraq experts praised the administration's efforts in the last few months of the negotiations, but lamented that it didn't always take into account the red lines of the parties, such as the Kurds.

"The level of U.S. engagement was not satisfactory in the early months of government formation, there was a sense of a hands-off approach. But by late summer, there was a clear sense of a need for more senior involvement," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War.

"As the months went on, a number of Iraqis were requesting Washington take a larger role to help bring people together," she said. "I'm glad to see now that there does seem to be engagement at the most senior levels, although Biden's office has been engaged all along."

Sullivan criticized the tactic of asking the Kurds to give up the presidency, however, saying that the White House should have known that was a non-starter.

"By the time the White House asked Talabani to step down, the Kurds had already publicly stated they wanted to maintain the presidency and that made it impossible for Talabani to do what Obama wanted," she said.

Some analysts hailed the administration's attempt to retain as much influence in Baghdad as possible, contrasting it with the supposedly more laissez-faire approach of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill.

"The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor," said Max Boot, writing on the website of Commentary magazine.

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Obama nominates Democratic campaign bundler for top Asia post

On the same day he visited his boyhood home of Indonesia, President Obama nominated David Carden, a securities lawyer and top fundraiser from his presidential campaign, to be the United States' first ever resident ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But to Washington's Asia policy community, Carden is  a complete unknown.

Carden, who chairs the securities litigation and SEC enforcement practice at the law firm Jones Day, partnered with his wife Rebecca Riley to raise at least $500,000 for Obama's campaign. The campaign didn't disclose exact fundraising figures for their biggest bundlers, but Carden and Riley were among Obama's top 35 fundraisers.

Obama's presidential campaign raised at least $76.5 million from "bundling," a means by which supporters who have exceeded their personal contribution limits round up contributions from friends, family, and associates and present them to the campaign in one big bundle.

Carden's selection is another example of the White House's tendency to give diplomatic posts to those who filled its campaign coffers, rather than regional experts or seasoned diplomats. Other examples of the phenomenon include the appointment of investment banker Louis Susman as ambassador to Britain, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel Rooney as ambassador to Ireland, entertainment mogul Charles Rivkin as Ambassador to France, and California lawyer John Roos as ambassador to Japan.

The appointment comes at a crucial time for the Obama administration, which is actively attempting to deepen its engagement with Asian nations. The success or failure of that effort will, in large part, be linked to the performance of America's first envoy to ASEAN who will live in Jakarta and work on this issue full time. ASEAN is also a key avenue through which the U.S. is addressing the rise of China and ASEAN countries are looking to Washington to match the increased pressure and influence being brought to bear on the region by Beijing.

The choice of Carden, who has limited diplomatic or regional expertise, came as a surprise to many in the Asia community that he will now be working with on a daily basis.

"We don't know him," said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't have a lot of experience in Southeast Asia as far as I can tell. I still don't know the rationale for matching him up with this job."

As an international securities litigation attorney, Carden has dealt with cases involving Asian clients, including in Indonesia, Singapore, China. He's also dealt with clients from England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and many other countries, according to the Jones Day website. He has represented several major financial firms, including Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. (The latter three no longer exist).

If confirmed by the Senate, Carden would be the second U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, but the first to actually live in the region. Scot Marciel, who did the job from Washington while being dual-hatted as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southeast Asia, is now the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. The U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, which Marciel heads, will serve as the location for Carden's new staff.

Carden's job will be to work with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, prepare for big ASEAN meetings and visits, and build up an institutional foundation for U.S. interaction with ASEAN particularly on issues related to business, trade, and investment.

"David Carden has been working and developing investment opportunities in Asia since the early 1990s -- a market that he, like the president, long ago identified as critical to increasing U.S. exports and trade," a White House official told The Cable. "As the first resident ambassador to ASEAN, Mr. Carden will work to implement the president's plan to double exports over the next five years, as well as ASEAN's mission to accelerate economic growth in the region, strengthen ties between the ASEAN nations and the United States, and promote regional peace and stability."

Bower said that Carden's appointment probably signals the end of the notion that the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN might also be named the Special Envoy to Burma, as some, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), have advocated.

"He would really be out of his depth to do both jobs, and you would risk putting ASEAN back in the Burma box again," Bower said, referring to previous American tendencies toward avoiding full engagement with ASEAN because the brutal Burmese regime is a member.

The uncertainty surrounding this new position is exactly why some Asia experts think Carden's selection was a risky choice.

"Given that it's a new position, the very fact that there are no rules for what the U.S. resident ambassador does, I would prefer to have someone with extensive diplomatic experience," said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Someone with a diplomatic background is more preferable because you're not just dealing with one country you can bone up on, you're dealing with 10 countries."

Not that bringing in a new face is necessarily bad, Auslin noted. For example, Obama's selection of campaign fundraiser John Roos to be U.S. ambassador to Japan at first worried Tokyo, but seems to be working out now.

But the ASEAN post is also unique because there are so many details that have yet to be ironed out regarding how Carden would interact with Marciel, the other nine U.S. ambassadors to ASEAN, the State Department, etc.

"We already have ambassadors to all of these nations, now we are going to have someone on top of that structure. We just don't know how much of this has been thought out," Auslin said.

Carden's Senate confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, will offer a glimpse into how much he knows about the region he would be moving to, and how much he has thought through his role as America's top envoy to Southeast Asia. But some see his selection as an indication that the White House is not happy with its system of appointing powerful envoys with broad mandates to run specific regions or issues.

"Either they want somebody like Holbrooke to come in and lead or they are just giving out titles and the real policymaking will still be centered back here in Washington," Auslin said. "We just don't know how this is going to work out."