The Cable

Iraqi Ambassador Offers Window Into New Prime Minister's Worldview

The Iraqi government is poised for a significant overhaul following this month's nomination of Haider al-Abadi as the country's next prime minister. But at least one senior official won't have to worry about cleaning out his desk: Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily.

"I anticipate that I will stay here," Faily told Foreign Policy. "I know the prime minister-designate extremely well."

Indeed, Faily and Abadi have been close confidants since their days of academic and private-sector work in England in the 1980s. While Abadi earned a doctorate in engineering at the University of Manchester in 1980, Faily completed his degree in mathematics and computer science at Manchester Metropolitan University a few years later. On a weekly basis, the two men collaborated on student activism projects and demonstrations rooted in their opposition to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. While immersing themselves in the Shiite Dawa Party, Abadi led a company that serviced elevators for the building that housed the BBC World Service; and Faily worked for multiple IT companies.

It is Abadi's connection to the West that has fueled hope that he might govern in a more inclusive manner than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose insular, power-hungry style alienated Iraq's Sunnis and helped pave the way for the Islamic State's takeover of large swaths of the country. But much remains unknown about Abadi's plans for Iraq, and many doubt that a lifelong Islamist of his profile can save the bitterly divided country.

In comparing the two leaders, Faily said Abadi's rise brings an opportunity for better relations with Washington. "He speaks English. He doesn't need a translator. He can tune into the D.C. frequency quite easily," he said.

By contrast, Maliki spent many of his formative years in Iran and Syria. "Prime Minister Maliki hardly had been to the West," noted Faily. "He was taught in a region where anti-imperialism is the normal doctrine. In that sense, they are two different breeds."

But those hoping for a dramatically different chief executive in Baghdad will likely be disappointed. Faily emphasized that the two Dawa Party members share a broadly similar worldview and cautioned against those depicting the political transition in stark terms. "He's also an Islamist by background. He will not have that much of a different vision than Maliki," said Faily.

Born to a prominent doctor in Baghdad in 1952, Abadi joined the Islamic Dawa Party at age 15. In the 1970s, the Dawa Party staged an armed insurgency after the Baathist Party came to power. Two of his brothers, also Dawa Party members, were killed by the Baath regime, and another was imprisoned for 10 years. In the late 1970s, Abadi moved to Britain and later became an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein.

Although his time in Britain introduced him to the Western way of life, it also exposed him to policies he vehemently disagreed with, such as London and Washington's support of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War. "He and I and others had difficulties with the British system because they were with Saddam at the time," Faily said. "People talk about justice and fairness, but at the end of the day, they're supporting him in a fight where he was the aggressor. So how would you expect him to think that these were people with ideals rather than opportunists?"

Abadi now finds himself in a high-stakes effort to keep Iraq in one piece.

He must build a power-sharing government that diminishes sectarian tensions and fends off Islamic State militants, the greatest threat to the country's security since the fall of Saddam in 2003. According to the White House and State Department, forging strong partnerships with Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds is key, but the going hasn't been easy.

On Monday, Aug. 25, Abadi said the new government was forming with a "clear vision," but the remarks coincided with a spate of fresh car bombings underscoring the deep divisions in the country.

"The talks to form the government were positive and constructive. I hope in the next two coming days to agree on a clear vision of a unified program for the government," Abadi told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad. After the address, a suicide bomber detonated his vest inside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, killing at least nine people and wounding 21. On Monday, bombings in the Shiite holy city of Karbala killed four and injured 17. On Saturday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for three car bombings in Kirkuk and one in Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish north.

Besides divvying up cabinet positions among Iraq's various sects, experts say Abadi must repair relations with Sunni tribes supporting the Islamic State and tweak the constitution to limit executive power. "Iraq does, in my view, require a very different model of governance," said Charles Dunne, Middle East director at Freedom House, a Washington think tank.

But few are convinced that Abadi will take up the West's recommendations just because he knows English or has lived in Britain. "Bashar al-Assad was an ophthalmologist in Britain, so we can't necessarily read too much into that," Dunne said.

Others are slightly more optimistic. "Abadi might not differ much from Maliki in that they both are from the same party, but the expectation is that Abadi would be more inclusive than Maliki in making sure all forces, particularly the Sunnis, feel part of the decision-making process," said Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "With ISIS controlling a good chunk of Iraq's territory, and the Kurds threatening to go their separate way, Abadi can go a long way by being more inclusive; and so far many of the Sunni forces [have] indicated their willingness to cooperate so long as he shows inclusiveness."

To some extent, the ball is in the Sunnis' court, said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The Shiites did a really big thing in forcing Maliki out," he said. "Now the question is, what are the Sunnis going to be willing to accept to turn against the Islamic State and fight them?"

As for whether Abadi has the political skill to win over skeptical Sunni leaders, Pollack said it's impossible to know. "Too many times, Americans get themselves overexcited about a new 'great white hope,' but it rarely pans out," he said. "If you were a betting man, you'd say it's unlikely that this is going to be fixed soon."

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The Cable

How NATO Could Confront the Putin Doctrine

As talks involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, get underway in Belarus, evidence mounted that Russia is escalating its incursion of Ukrainian territory by sending troops and a column of tanks into eastern Ukraine.

NATO was quick to condemn Russia's actions Monday, Aug. 25, yet similar previous condemnations have done nothing to deter Putin. But the alliance does have options beyond harsh words to deter Russia's insurgency in a key European neighbor.

Ukraine doesn't belong to NATO, so the alliance is not obligated by treaty to deploy ground troops or air support. NATO could provide weapons, but the fight would be the Ukrainians to win.

Even if NATO allies don't supply the Ukrainians with weapons, they may end up indirectly paying for arms that Ukraine needs down the road. Its economic situation is dire as the conflict drags on far past the mere "hours" that Poroshenko predicted it would take to rout the separatists when elected in May.

The Putin doctrine -- the belief that Russia has the right to act to protect Russian-speakers, no matter where they are -- puts NATO nations such as Estonia, Latvia, and Poland at risk. Each of these countries has citizens who speak Russian; the Kremlin has suggested it would penetrate those borders if Moscow thought those populations were threatened.

According to Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009, the alliance is now in the middle of a delicate balancing act: It's trying to show enough force to warn Russia away from NATO members that were part of the old Eastern Bloc, while not appearing openly hostile in a way that would provoke Russia's territorial ambitions. The last thing NATO wants is a second Cold War.

"The higher we make the line for protecting allies, the worse it is for countries like Moldova and Georgia and Ukraine," he said. "You're telling Russians that if you're not a NATO member, you're fair game. That's a dangerous signal."

Since the Ukrainian crisis began, NATO has conducted shows of force in former Soviet-bloc states. It's planning a large military exercise in Poland in October. It tripled the number of air patrols over Baltic states in May and conducted additional naval exercise in the region. And U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Estonia ahead of a NATO summit in Wales next week, a powerful show of solidarity with a country that Putin has publicly eyed as a candidate for Russian intervention.

However, Volker thinks that the alliance could do more.

"NATO could reconstitute an ace mobile force, a NATO response force," he said. "The idea is that you have units that exist not just on paper -- that are identified together and exercise together. They could exercise as a multinational force in Eastern Europe. It would be a strong show of multinational solidarity."

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it detained 10 Russian paratroopers in the country's contested Donetsk region. Russian news agencies reported that Russian officials said that the soldiers were there by accident. Late Tuesday, Ukraine released videos showing the captured Russian soldiers.

This "accidental" incursion follows a more blatant one on Monday, when a column of tanks and troops crossed into southeastern Ukraine from Russia.

"The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway," the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted just past midnight on Tuesday.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted, "Russia's military incursions into Ukraine," including air-defense systems, tanks, soldiers, and artillery, "represent significant escalation."

All this comes just after Poroshenko dissolved Ukraine's government on Monday in an attempt to rid it of Russian sympathizers. Russia's outright contempt of international opinion, combined with the political instability in Kiev, inspires little confidence in Poroshenko of Putin's ability to reach a deal ending the crisis. By late Tuesday, the only public show of goodwill between the two was a handshake.

According to John Herbst, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, there wasn't much hope of a deal even before Russia's latest violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.

"There will be no progress tomorrow unless Poroshenko is willing to concede an additional part of his country to Putin," Herbst said on Monday. "It's clear that the only solution that Mr. Putin will accept is one in which he has either a major say, if not a veto, over what happens in [eastern Ukraine]. Without that, Putin continues his irregular war and insurgency. We have no evidence that he is willing to cease his aggression in Ukraine."

Ukraine's budget also gives Putin more leverage.

Ukraine's currency has lost 60 percent of its value since the beginning of the year, and manufacturing and spending have been hit by the uncertainty over the separatist conflict. The country is burning through a $17 billion loan from the IMF. If the conflict drags into the fall, Kiev will also have to grapple with holding aside enough reserves to buy gas from Russia for the winter -- not to mention that negotiating a price for that gas will give Moscow another lever to pressure Ukraine into make concessions in the east.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said the key to deterring Russia from using this leverage is showing that NATO can react quickly to a threat.

"NATO is not going to put large numbers of troops in Eastern Europe on a standing basis, barring some specific threat," he said. "The questions is, how do you put in place capacity for rapid response? There, NATO has a lot of work to do."

For Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, military solutions do not go far enough. He said that NATO should publicly question the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a 1997 agreement that states that each side does not view the other as a threat.

"This agreement is based on the notion that there is no threat from the east," he said. "Putin's behavior in Ukraine has changed that."

The X factor in coordinated alliance action is Germany. At the outset, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hesitant to punish Russia. But after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, she successfully pushed for tougher sanctions. However, according to Joerg Wolf, editor in chief of the Berlin-based think tank Atlantic-community.org, Berlin would view additional penalties as unnecessary escalation.

"The belief is that a forceful response would be counterproductive and a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., if NATO were to go into full Cold War mode and set up big, permanent military bases in Poland and the Baltic states, then Russia would consider this a provocation and an excuse to escalate the situation further," Wolf said. "As result of World War I and many centuries of wars on our continent, Europeans are more concerned than Americans about unintended consequences, vicious circles, and spirals leading towards war."

Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he understands this hesitancy. But maintaining the border integrity of non-NATO European countries is also a key interest of the alliance; European NATO members do not want Russia seizing territory without consequence along the alliance's eastern border.

"We have an interest of keeping stability in Europe by protecting its borders, not just of NATO members, but also protecting the territorial integrity of our partners," he said, noting that Ukraine and Georgia are officially partners of the alliance.

"I think that a passive or soft position actually encourages Russia to keep this up," he added. "When NATO doesn't push back, Russia can go on to the next [incursion]. You need a clear line that Russians know they can't cross."

Senior reporter Jamila Trindle contributed to this report.

Photo by GRIGORY DUKOR / AFP / Getty Images