May 4, 2009 — Dear Ambassador Hill,
Congratulations on your long-delayed confirmation as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. By now you're probably on the ground in Baghdad, being overwhelmed with briefings from the embassy staff and the military. We trust that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government have also presented you with their agenda for what Iraq wants from the United States. You are being pulled in many different directions, with everyone vying to attract your attention to their own special needs and issues.
Iraq is sure to test your formidable diplomatic skills. The ad hoc bargains and ceasefires negotiated by your predecessor, Ryan Crocker, and the U.S. military -- deals that kept the country from plunging deeper into the throes of insurgency and civil war -- appear to be on the verge of unraveling. Iraqi security forces are arresting leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" units, further alienating a Sunni population that already regards the Shiite-majority government as an Iranian puppet. Across northern Iraq, Kurdish and Arab factions are jockeying for position in anticipation of conflict over oil-rich territories like Kirkuk. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Maliki is increasingly consolidating his control over important state institutions, most notably the security forces, sparking fears among many Iraqi parties of a return to strongman rule.
The United States faces this troublesome situation in Iraq with its influence diminishing along with its military presence. President Obama has announced a withdrawal date for American troops and clearly signaled that his administration does not intend to commit more resources to Iraq. The American foreign policy community is focused squarely on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The American people have largely tuned out the Iraq war and assume that it is all over.
These are not the most auspicious circumstances for an ambassador to serve under. You will have to deal with many conflicting demands and daily disasters. But to effectively advance U.S. interests, you must avoid getting caught up in the details of day-to-day crisis management and instead take a long-term strategic view of what kind of relationship the United States wants to have with Iraq 10 years from now.
The United States desires a stable, democratic Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors. Iraq can also play an important leadership role in regional politics, economics, and security. While helping the Iraqis work to resolve the fundamental conflicts within their country, you should prioritize the following three steps to set the groundwork for a stronger Iraq that can be a partner for peace and stability in the region:
Ambassador, the task before you is monumental. But you have a historic opportunity to translate America's hard-won tactical successes in 2007-08 into a strategic victory in 2009 and beyond. You will need to demonstrate that Iraq is not just a place that, having fought for, Americans will now forget, but rather an important state that can become a valuable ally of the United States.Related: