Pompeo calls on Senate to confirm senior official in Near East Bureau

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on the US Senate to move on some 65 State Department nominees, whose confirmation awaits action.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on the US Senate to move on some 65 State Department nominees, whose confirmations await action.

They include David Schenker, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). Schenker was among those individuals Pompeo specifically named, whose timely confirmations are an urgent priority.

“David Schenker, the President’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, is held up,” Pompeo told the State Department press corps, “while the humanitarian crisis continues and while Iran continues to undermine peace and stability throughout the Middle East.”

Pompeo could well have added the troubled situation in Iraq. US policy there is in sore need of the coherence and direction that a knowledgeable and experienced Middle East expert, like Schenker, would provide.

The Trump administration inherited a weak position from its predecessor in both Syria and Iraq. Under Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, little effort was made to strengthen US policy in either country.

That changed as regards Syria when Amb. James Jeffrey was recalled from retirement a month ago and appointed Special Envoy for Syrian Engagement.

Already, Jeffrey’s appointment has made a significant difference in generating a more vigorous, coherent policy in Syria, as Sinam Mohamad, representative to Washington of the Syrian Democratic Council, told Kurdistan 24.

However, in Iraq, the Obama-era policy continues, led by an Obama-era holdover: Brett McGurk, who replaced Gen. John Allen as Special Presidential Envoy (SPE) to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, after Allen stepped down in October 2015.

Originally, the Trump administration planned to replace McGurk with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (US Army, Ret.), but when Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (US Army, Ret.), was obliged to resign soon after taking office, McMaster was tapped to replace him, and McGurk remained SPE.

The issue was further complicated by the lack of an Assistant Secretary at NEA. Tillerson was very slow to fill vacancies and McGurk, an experienced bureaucrat, stepped into the vacuum, assuming responsibility for those areas that the US and its partners liberated from IS’ control.

Jeffrey has taken over in Syria from McGurk, but Iraq remains within the latter’s purview—although he lacks any deep knowledge of the Middle East.

McGurk is known among Iraqis as being pro-Shia and unfriendly to Kurds and Sunni Arabs. His perspective contrasts sharply with that of President Donald Trump, who just last week, hailed the Kurds as “great fighters” and “great people.”

It also contrasts with the view of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who, before assuming that position, expressed his sympathies with the Kurds, telling Kurdistan 24 that the US should respect the results of the Kurdistan independence referendum.

It may also contrast with that of Pompeo, who as CIA Director, was the first senior US official to confirm Iran’s role in the attack on Kirkuk.

So the President’s view—which he expressed already in 2016, while on the campaign trail—is not translated into policy, because the person charged with carrying out the policy has long held a different view

McGurk’s serial mistakes and miscommunications are stunning.

One, in Syria, would have been a serious blunder: a US deal with Russia.

The US has a presence in the town of al-Tanf, just across the border with Iraq. Al-Tanf sits astride the Baghdad-Damascus highway. Absent the US presence, that highway would become a key component of Iran’s “land bridge” to the Mediterranean.

McGurk promoted the idea that the US should evacuate al-Tanf in exchange for a Russian promise to keep Iranian forces at least 40 kilometers from Israel. But when the National Security Council learned of McGurk’s effort, it stopped it.

However, McGurk has had more freedom in Iraq. As the Kurdistan Regional Government prepared for last year’s independence referendum, McGurk said that he could block it. Of course, he failed.

A month later, as Baghdad prepared to attack Kirkuk in an operation orchestrated by Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, McGurk failed to inform the White House of Iran’s role, which then turned a blind eye to the assault—despite having just announced it was sanctioning the IRGC for its support of terrorism.

The assault on Kirkuk was supposed to promote Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq’s May 2018 elections. Instead, the Iranian-backed Shia militias, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, reaped the greater gain and finished ahead of Abadi, who had a poor, third-place showing.

Nonetheless—as if the vote of the Iraqi people were irrelevant—after the elections, McGurk continued to promote Abadi for a second term, until the very end, when the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most authoritative Shia cleric in Iraq, issued a statement that none of “the politicians who have been in authority in the past years” should become prime minister, because, “most of the people” have lost hope that they will achieve “the aims of improving their conditions and fighting corruption.”

With that, American’s man in Iraq was knocked out of the running.

Enter the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Had that office been occupied for the past year, an individual knowledgeable about and closely following events in Iraq would have had authority over McGurk. The strong likelihood exists that such an individual would have overturned the worst of McGurk’s decisions.

The nominee, David Schenker, had his confirmation hearing in June, but the committee has yet to vote on him.

There is no objection to Schenker personally. However, Sen. Tim Kaine (D, Virginia) has an issue with the basis for the US use of military force in the Middle East.

The US continues to fight under Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued in 2001 and 2002—many years ago.

One can sympathize with Kaine’s position. The Bush administration thought the war in Iraq would be easy—“a cakewalk”—and its entire “war on terror,” which it never defined very well, would be over by the time it left office.

Kaine has put a hold on Schenker’s confirmation, as he demands the administration release the memo that gives the legal rationale for the April 2017 strikes on Syria, following its use of chemical weapons.

In fairness to Kaine, his is a principled position. He raised the same issue with the Obama administration. But does he recognize the damage it does to US policy in Iraq, including to the Kurds, with whom he is sympathetic?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once made a memorable statement, while explaining the need to properly fund the State Department. If the Department does not get the money it requires, Mattis said, “then, I need to buy more ammunition.”

That applies to personnel too. Without an Assistant Secretary of State for NEA, McGurk (and others like him) may well continue making mistakes that hurt America’s friends in the region and ultimately lead to the further use of US military force that might have been avoided had the diplomacy been done right in the first place.

Editing by Nadia Riva