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It has taken nearly a decade since Saddam Hussein’s fall, but Iraq finally has a voice in Washington, DC. Being an ambassador in Washington is no easy task: Any ambassador who sits in the embassy and expects to have influence is mistaken. American diplomats lack influence in Iraq because they sit behind blast walls isolated from the country in which they serve. For too long, the Iraqi embassy in Washington did the same, even if there were no blast walls.
To be a good ambassador in the United States, it is important not only to talk to the State Department, but also to congress, journalists, military officers, academics, and civil society leaders. The best ambassadors cultivate relations not only with the party in power, but also those in opposition who might one day return to power. As in Iraq, the relationship is often more important than the position. If an ambassador needs a favor the first time he meets an official, he will be far less successful than if he has known the official with whom he must work for months on a social and personal level.
The situation is even more complicated in U.S.-Iraq relations. The war to oust Saddam Hussein and renew Iraq may be over, but it remains controversial in both Washington and Baghdad. Thousands of Americans and many more Iraqis lost their lives in the insurgency and terrorism which followed Saddam’s fall. It would be wrong to blame such terrorism on either United States soldiers or ordinary Iraqis: Terrorism is not spontaneous, but rather deliberate. Just as in Syria today, the planners of terrorism received money, training, and support from outside Iraq’s borders.
Still, there are many bitter memories. In Washington, Iraq became a political football by which Democrats could try to criticize Republicans. Today, rather than invest in Iraq, American politicians and businessmen are more inclined to try to forget it. The United States does not want to return its military to Iraq and, indeed, never will. But strong relations are in both country’s interests. For Iraq, having strong relations with countries around the globe prevents any single country from ever again dominating Iraq and helps preserve Iraq’s independence.
Lukman Faily, Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States, has worked carefully to build bilateral relations since he arrived in Washington this past summer. It is no coincidence that United States Congressmen no longer accept blindly the assurances of Turkish and Saudi officials attesting to the moderation of the Syrian opposition. Rather, it is because Iraq’s ambassador is a familiar face in Congress and the White House, and has been able both to explain Iraqi concerns and, when necessary, counter the propaganda pushed by those motivated by sectarian interests. He has become a frequent voice in America’s leading newspapers, and indeed has appeared more in print than any other Arab leader or ambassador.
By visiting Arlington National Cemetery, where American solders since the nineteenth century have been buried, he won the respect of military leaders who are now more willing to listen to him and, through him, the Iraqi government on issues relating to everything from Iran to Al Qaeda to what Iraq needs to defend itself so that it can stand independent, defeat terrorism, and never again face war and occupation. How ignorant it was for Muqtada al-Sadr to criticize the ambassador’s visit, when it is basic protocol for all ambassadors serving in Washington, DC, just as it is common for U.S. ambassadors to pay their respect to fallen Iraqis. Sadr might criticize U.S. troops, but the simple fact remains: While Muqtada al-Sadr was in Tehran, U.S. troops defeated Saddam Hussein, freed Najaf from Baathist tyranny to enabled its learned ayatollahs freedom to once again advance their scholarship, and worked with Iraqis to defeat the new Yazid’s and Mu’awiyyas who would have denied Shi‘ites democratic rights.
Historians will debate U.S. actions in Iraq, what American forces did right and what they did wrong. But the war is now over and neither Sadr’s rhetoric nor his hatred of diplomacy will improve the lives of Iraqis, nor guarantee their religious freedom. Rather, ensuring that the voice of Iraq’s elected government is heard not only in Baghdad but also in Washington and Tehran; and Moscow and Beijing is the way to a secure Iraqi future. Let us hope that Iraq always maintains such an active diplomatic voice now and in the future, so that no one speaks for Iraq but Iraqis themselves.
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