President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. But members of the Iraqi and American opposition parties are already criticizing the choice.
In announcing McGurk's nomination, the White House noted that he has served as a senior advisor to the last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffrey, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill, and that he served on the National Security Council, initially as director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to 2005, he was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
What the White House didn't mention is that McGurk was the lead negotiator for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and he led the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq even longer.
McGurk's perceived closeness to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during those two sets of negotiations is both an asset and a detriment as his nomination moves forward. The Washington office of the main Iraqi opposition bloc, Al Iraqiya, penned a letter to all members of Congress Monday stating that its members would have nothing to do with McGurk if he is confirmed as the U.S. envoy to Baghdad.
"I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party," wrote Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representiative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition.
Later Tuesday, Allawi's office sent out another note saying their original message contained "many typos" and they would send out a more official note Wednesday.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who were frustrated by the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a follow-on security agreement for American troop presence with the Maliki government are also criticizing the McGurk nomination.
"I will have very significant questions about his qualifications and his positions on the issues... He's not my choice," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable.
McCain said he won't formally decide on whether to hold up McGurk's nomination until he has a chance to hear from the nominee. But he focused on the fact that although McGurk was deeply involved in negotiating a follow on force in Iraq, today he says he agrees with the administration that no follow-on force is necessary.
"Now he thinks it was a fine idea that we do not have a residual force there. That's not my view," McCain said.
McGurk testified before McCain's committee last November and said that while he did try to negotiate a follow-on agreement to keep some American troops in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi lawyers determined it could not work unless the Iraqi parliament passed a law giving those troops immunity from Iraqi courts, which wasn't possible politically in Iraq.
"Against this backdrop, the best available policy for the United States was to fulfill the commitment under the  security agreement and elevate the [Strategic Framework Agreement] as the pillar of our long term relationship. Having just returned from Baghdad, I am confident that this policy -- if handled right -- can open a new window of opportunity for relations with Iraq, including close security and defense relations," McGurk testified.
Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Cable today the objections to McGurk's nomination are based both on his perceived closeness to Maliki and on the fact that he has no experience running an embassy, much less the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
"Many Iraqi players outside Maliki's circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There's the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions," he said.
"It's our largest embassy and it's placed in a hostile environment, where thousands of Iraqis are killed each year in what is still an ongoing insurgency. Some would argue that the ideal candidate for chief of mission would be someone from the Foreign Service who has already run an embassy in the Arab world, understands Iraq and its political culture, and speaks the Arabic language."