Is the State Department undermining White House policy?

The White House speaks warmly of the Kurds and genuinely seems to want to support them.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – In the US, the President decides the policy, which, usually, the departments are charged with executing. That is how the system is supposed to work. 

But it is not uncommon that departments undermine White House direction, for a variety of reasons, including that they have their own views. They may regard themselves as the true experts, and the president as a temporary interloper. 

President Harry Truman famously remarked of his successor, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “He’ll sit here and say do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike! It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” 

The White House speaks warmly of the Kurds and genuinely seems to want to support them. 

As National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster affirmed in mid-December, “resolving the crisis” between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq is a “big priority for President Trump.” 

McMaster recounted how formal US military and diplomatic ties to the Kurdistan Region dated back 26 years—to Operation Provide Comfort. 

“What happened in that time? he continued. “You saw the Kurdish Region flourish.” 

“It’s a miracle, almost, what happened in Northern Iraq in terms of the growth of beautiful cities in Sulaimani, Erbil, and Duhok; the return of populations to those regions; a vibrant, but fragile, vulnerable economy.” 

But that warmth is absent from the State Department’s execution of policy. Although three months have passed, virtually no progress has been made in resolving tensions between Baghdad and Erbil. 

The result may be a defeat for the US and its national security interests in Iraq and the broader Middle East. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears distracted and ill-informed. Of course, he has higher priorities, like Russia and North Korea. 

Tillerson goofed in an October press conference in Riyadh when he said “Iranian militias” in Iraq “need to go home.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi rebuked him, affirming that those forces were Iraqi. 

Key militias have Iranian advisors and operate under Tehran’s direction, somewhat like Hezbollah in Lebanon. They include groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah—headed by a figure whom the US earlier jailed for killing Americans. 

They receive training and direction from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, under the leadership of Qassim Soleimani, who heads the IRGC’s Quds Force. 

Such organizations carried out some 6,000 attacks on Americans in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Most have already been designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, while the rest are in the process of being designated as such by the US Congress. 

Tillerson’s remark seemed to reflect a lack of awareness of the extent of Iran’s penetration of Iraq’s government. 

Two months after that goof, Tillerson, while speaking in Washington, made a similar error, when he said: “Iraqis are Arab.” 

Fully one-fifth of Iraq’s population is Kurdish, and Iraq’s 2005 constitution deliberately does not describe Iraq as an Arab state. 

Tillerson knows the Saudis from his time as chairman of Exxon-Mobil. Is he counting on them to counter Iranian influence in Baghdad? 

In Washington, Tillerson said that the Saudis have started “economic talks and consultative committees” with Iraq. “They’ve re-opened two border crossings” and are “resuming flights between Baghdad and Riyadh.” 

That is nothing compared to the deeply entrenched position that Iran has established in Iraq during the 15 years since the US overthrew Saddam Hussein and his regime. 

Saudi Arabia is a tribal society, which, until the advent of King Salman and his ambitious young son, Mohammed, eschewed a high-profile role in international politics. Iran, on the other hand, is an ancient empire, skilled at the machinations of coercion and diplomacy. 

The Saudis are challenging Iran’s expansionism in three other countries. 

In Yemen, the Saudi effort—a bombing campaign, combined with a siege of Yemeni ports—has produced a “humanitarian catastrophe,” as one State Department official recently characterized the situation. 

In Lebanon, the Saudis summoned Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh; detained him; and forced him to announce his resignation. The ham-fisted maneuver was soon exposed, and Hariri returned to Beirut and his post. 

Saudi efforts to pressure Qatar have proven no more successful. Despite Tillerson’s own attempts to mediate between the two Gulf states, a prolonged stalemate has ensued. 

Why would Saudi efforts in Iraq prove any more successful? 

Tillerson also made an astonishing admission in his Washington address. The State Department was unprepared for the defeat of the Islamic State (IS). 

“As a result of the military success,” that followed President Donald Trump’s directive for an accelerated campaign against IS, “we in the State Department have really had to run fast to catch up with the diplomatic plans as to what comes after [IS’] defeat,” Tillerson explained. 

Former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani repeatedly advised that the US needed to start working out political reforms in Iraq to prevent IS’ re-emergence in the future. However, his counsel went unheeded. 

The State Department’s efforts in Iraq fall to lower-ranking officials, a particularly acute problem, given the vacuum at senior positions. Above all, Brett McGurk—a holdover from the Obama administration which took an accommodating stance toward Iran—has assumed responsibility for Iraq. 

McGurk is known for his pro-Shia position, as Michael Pregent, a Hudson Institute expert on Iraq told Kurdistan 24: a “spokesperson” for al-Dawa (Abadi’s party.) 

We journalists experienced an aspect of that in a briefing McGurk gave last August. Three representatives of the Kurdish media attended, and we each felt that McGurk’s response to our questions was surprisingly angry and aggressive—out of place in the usually staid environment of State Department press briefings. 

The US is focused on securing Abadi’s success in the elections scheduled for this spring. Yet any policy that rests on one individual is inherently fragile. 

Since the Kurds’ Sep. 25 referendum, Abadi has adopted a harsh posture, including the attack on Kirkuk and other disputed areas—about which he misled the US, concealing Tehran’s role in the assault. 

Abadi has taken other measures against the civilian population of Kurdistan. He imposed a ban on international flights to Kurdish airports; withheld payment of government salaries; and proposes to slash the 17.5% of the Iraqi budget that is supposed to go to the Kurdistan Region, even as the Region has borne the huge cost of fighting IS, as well as hosting nearly 2 million refugees. 

In the three months since, the US has been publicly silent about Abadi’s mistreatment of the Kurds—although some of his actions violate international regulations, like shutting down Kurdish airports, impermissible according to the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization. 

Other countries have spoken out—including France, Germany, and the Netherlands. 

So, too, have a host of Iraqi officials, both Arab and Kurd, Sunni, and Shia. They include President Fuad Masum; all three Vice-Presidents: Ayad Allawi, Nuri al-Maliki; and Osama al-Nujaifi; as well as the Sadrist Interior Minister, Qasim al-Araji; and Ayad al-Samarrai, head of Iraq’s Islamic Party. 

Iran pushes Abadi to be aggressive toward the Kurds because it has a Kurdish minority itself and wants to bring Iraq’s Kurds to heel. Perhaps, Tehran also wants to show that the US is unreliable because the Middle East has certainly taken note of how the US is treating a long-time ally. 

Abadi’s harsh posture is also driven by electoral considerations: to mobilize and exploit anti-Kurdish sentiment in the next elections. But as Masum warned, “This is a grave mistake.” 

The US calculation in opposing Kurdish independence was that keeping the Kurds in Iraq would mean that their vote would go to Washington’s favored candidate and not to a candidate preferred by Iran. That would ensure Abadi’s election. 

But given what the Kurdish people have suffered from Abadi, their representatives will have a hard time supporting him, one informed source told Kurdistan 24. 

Notably, Maliki was one of the first Iraqi politicians to protest Abadi’s mistreatment of the Kurds, and he has done so twice. 

Maliki is very close to Tehran, and he would not speak out on behalf of the Kurds and against Abadi without at least consulting Tehran, an informed Kurdish source told Kurdistan 24. 

That raises a key question. Is Tehran maneuvering to exploit America’s untoward acquiescence in Abadi’s mistreatment of the Kurds? 

The US has demonstrated that, under present circumstances, the KRG cannot rely on Washington to protect it against Iraqi aggression. But Iran can, should it decide to do so. 

Is Tehran quietly proposing a deal with Erbil? Perhaps, along the lines: be careful to keep some distance from Washington, and above all, support our candidate in the elections, and we will stop Baghdad’s harsh, unjustified measures toward you. 

Baghdad’s repressive posture toward the Kurds and the ineffectual US response—despite the warm words from the White House—raise the question: who is really setting US policy, the President or the State Department?

Editing by Nadia Riva