As US Consulate in Irbil. Iraq, is Bombed, can US still do Diplomacy in ME?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

A bombing that killed 3 people and wounded 10 on Saturday outside the US consulate in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, raises an important question about the US diplomatic presence in the eastern reaches of the Middle East. Is it still possible for diplomats to do their work this way?

The US is bombing positions of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria daily, and it is not surprising that the organization (which claimed the Irbil attack) should attempt to strike back.

Security for US embassies and consulates is largely the responsibility of the host country, which is a scary fact in places where the state has failed. There are a few US military troops guarding these facilities, and the ones in Irbil spotted the approach of the car bomb as it approached and fired on it, detonating it prematurely before it could reach the consulate gates. Thus, there were no American casualties or damage to the consulate. Two of the bystanders killed were Turkish nationals. Security is on the whole good in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, but Daesh has targeted the city and even mobilized ground troops against it last summer before US air strikes and Peshmerga Kurdish fighters pushed them back.

Last summer, Daesh tried to attack the US embassy itself. The US has an enormous embassy complex in Baghdad, protected behind the blast walls of the Green Zone. But contrary to original plans, it has been vastly scaled back, and only about 1,000 US personnel are there. Diplomats from the State Department are probably a fraction of this staff. Embassy personnel seldom are able to venture out into Baghdad. Much Iraqi government business in Baghdad is still done inside the Green Zone, but being stuck behind the blast walls of the security area interferes with the embassy’s outreach. I visited the embassy in May of 2012 and it was like entering a different world (my hotel was in an ordinary part of the city, not behind those walls, and the ministry of culture kindly ferried us around in minibuses; I had a sense I’d seen much more of the city than had the brave and clearly frustrated embassy staff.)

There are also to be 3,000 US military personnel in Iraq as trainers and advisers to the Iraqi army, which has collapsed. Contrary to what I and others had assumed, these troops are staying on Iraqi military bases and don’t seem to be going out embedded in Iraqi army or Peshmerga units. Still, given that thousands of Iraqi troops just ran away from Mosul last June, letting Daesh have the second largest city in the country, you have to wonder how secure those Iraqi military bases are.

On several occasions in recent years embassy personnel, from Beirut to Tunis, have complained to me when I visited the Middle East that the restrictions they now face on their movements interfere in their doing their jobs as diplomats.

This have been made worse by the politicization of consulate security by Congress and the Benghazi witch hunt. It used to be that politics stopped at the US border. But now the Obama administration has every reason politically to err on the side of caution, and to restrict diplomats or close embassies and consulates so as to avoid all the hearings that would come with another attack on them.

The collapse of armies and of governments in a wide swathe of the Middle East has left the US entirely without embassies in Syria, Yemen or Libya. The staff in Tunis has been reduced to a skeleton crew and families have been sent home. This, at a time when Tunisia is among the few political success stories, so far, in the region and would benefit from more US civilian aid and exchanges. Elsewhere, as in Beirut or Cairo, the embassy is virtually an armed camp, rather than being a window on American for locals or a place from which US diplomats can get to know local society. There is some question whether US diplomacy is even possible in much of the region.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “lamic State claims car bomb at U.S. Consulate in Erbil”

9 Responses

  1. This Der Spiegel article on the “secret files” of the Islamic State (link to certainly has more of the ring of truth than the Atlantic’s article of a month ago. The surprise is that the paradoxes, contradictions, and very seemingly (even before this revelatory article) Machiavellian, secular, and criminal underpinnings of the organization weren’t deemed more apparent and probable by the MSM than the tales ISIS self-servingly told of itself, an organization that, through its facility with mass murder, more resembles SS Einsatzgruppen, than one permeated and inspired at its highest levels by a Koranic enlightenment (an absurd association on the very face of it). In short, the Islamic state strikes one as having far more in common ‘subcutaneously’ to Mexican cartels barbarously occupying (exploiting, terrorizing) entire cities and even states than to a genuine revolutionary force (if by revolutionary one understands a movement motivated by the implementation of a genuine alternate Idea, in the Platonic sense, of the constitution of society).

    P.S. ” …the embassy is virtually an armed camp, rather than being a window on American for locals or a place from which US diplomats can get to know local society.” The same can be said, with hardly any guilt of exaggeration, of American consulates/interests in certain important, even key Mexican cities.

  2. It is true tha US diplomats are finding it more difficult to carry out the work of the US government due to the increasing violence and instability of the Middle East.

    However, given the US has been the foreign power dominating diplomatic effects for decades in a region now moving into a series of civil wars, I am not convinced less opportunities to meddle is a bad thing.

  3. …can US still do Diplomacy in ME?

    Given the history of US diplomacy and other activities in the Middle East over the last four presidential administrations, we might all be better off if the US does nothing.

  4. The U.S. has been a major player in financial and diplomatic affairs of the M.E. for nearly a century. It is perforce the leading nation of the world on many counts. For this reason it should be to no one’s surprise that our country often takes blame for the eruption of new forces and violent inhumanities that occur both in the M.E. and parts of Africa. Still, no one who believes that the U.S. stands for humanity’s best ideals, inscribed in the world’s oldest constitution, ought to be so careless about facts surrounding global human earthquakes as to imagine that even one of them was intentionally processed by our country. Secondary effects are many times responsible for illnesses that erupt across the globe, and the U.S. is falsely and illogically blamed because of its involvement in affairs which have often led up to those illnesses but for which the U.S. is not the “efficient cause” at all. The U.S. was involved in Yemen but withdrew 100 military two weeks ago as Houthi forces brought new violence southward. Was the U.S. to blame? Then, in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam, irregular forces brought ceaseless violence against civilians in Iraq. Was it in any way planned by the U.S., the main intent of our country being to help the majority overthrow a ruthless dictator and to assure that the country would develop no access to nuclear power. In the case of Syria, disparate forces have contrary interests in overthrowing through violence the Assad dictatorship in that country so blessed by the conversion of Saul to the greatest writer of Christian letters of the very first century of Christianity, St. Paul. No one knows the outcome of the tragedy for the civilians of Syria, but their lives and homes have been forever altered by the attempts to overthrow the stable dictatorship of a country whose people have been as warm and hospitable as any an American could ever expect to meet across the M.E. Should the U.S. send in weapons? Clearly, it should be the last act ever offered by this country to assist…who? Contradictory ideologies infest the violence-producers that have already destroyed half the country. Do these unidentifiable forces need weapons? Does the world know what any single group would do, were its violent leaders to gain control of the beautiful country of Syria? The final note I can add: Stay out of Syria physically. Bring violent sides together and have them offer the world their plan for the future of Syria. Then we will have a perspective on what the world’s leader–and all other interested parties–might do to bring relief to the land that first witnessed the fire of Christ’s message that flowed from the Romans’ torture-methods in Jerusalem.

    • I doubt that Lawrence Davidson would share your views: “Answering ‘Why Do they Hate Us?’: After the 9/11 attacks when many Americans wondered “why do they hate us?” they were fed pabulum by President George W. Bush about them “hating our freedoms,” as a frightened (or complicit) U.S. news media didn’t dare contradict. That has left a confused American people,” writes Lawrence Davidson. – link to

    • You do have a point to some degree if we consider Arab attacks on the US and its agencies in the Middle East while people in Latin America have not followed similar paths despite their grievances against US policies. However, the Arabs who have been aggressive against the US didn’t just decided for the heck of it to be aggressive just for the sake of being aggressive and tossed a dart at the map of the world to see which nation to pick on. Memories of events such as the sanctions on Iraq that cost an estimated half million lives and the treatment of Palestinians gave them cause to attack the US.

    • “who believes that the U.S. stands for humanity’s best ideals, inscribed in the world’s oldest constitution”

      You’d have to live under a rock to continue to cling to this notion. I content that a honest attempt to live up to these ideals would be a nice change of pace.

  5. Reports in the Guardian say Baghdadi was so badly injured by U.S. bombs in mid-March he wasn’t expected to live. Now, he’s more than happy to do diplomacy with the U.S. before the next bomb kills him.

    Daesh needs to be driven out of Iraq. How long can they last?

Comments are closed.