Tuesday, September 02, 2008

If I were American ambassador in Iraq

Ambassadors are rarely at liberty to say what they feel but Iraq is a country in need of some straight talking. The American ambassador should not be acting as an echo, saying what the White House wants to hear.

America’s many failures in Iraq have been compounded by a lack of diplomatic honesty and insight. Whilst it is not easy to gather intelligence in a country at war the Americans missed those few opportunities presented to them. I am thinking particularly of the period when the veteran UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, was Special Envoy to Iraq and advising on the formation of an interim government.

Brahimi brought with him a wealth of experience and direct personal knowledge of the Middle East. He realised that dissolving the army had been a disaster and knew that America was handing over control to the most sectarian elements in the Shia community. Instead of listening to Brahimi the American ambassador dismissed his ideas and tried to undermine his standing as a fair and impartial negotiator.

This inability to hear messages that displease or contradict their world view is a great failing of American diplomacy. With regard to Iraq they should take a cue from history and the behaviour of former British ambassadors. I have read what many British ambassadors said and wrote whilst resident in Iraq and have been impressed by their knowledge and insight. These men were thinking about the reality on the ground, not pleasing politicians in Westminster. They placed truth above personal ambition.

Lakhdar Brahimi once said “When you go from one place to another you go with experience, you don’t go with prescriptions.” I’m afraid this is just one of many wise statements the Americans chose to ignore.

Until America begins to respect experience and distrust prescriptions success in Iraq and elsewhere will continue to elude it.

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