How the United States Lost the Right Man for the Job in Iraq

Military analysis.
June 20 2012 11:00 AM

Our Man in Baghdad

Brett McGurk was the perfect choice to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq: smart, experienced, and plugged in. So who was behind the campaign to smear his name?

Brett McGurk.
Brett McGurk

Photograph courtesy Harvard.edu

The seamiest affair in Washington this summer, one of the seamiest in many summers, is the aborted appointment of Brett McGurk as ambassador to Iraq—but not for the reason many think.

McGurk withdrew his nomination this week after an obscure website—then several major news organizations—posted a series of salacious emails that he exchanged four years ago with Gina Chon, at the time a Wall Street Journal reporter who is now his wife.

The tale has been reported for the most part as a tawdry gossip item, another case of a rising political star who crashed and burned owing to his sexual escapades. But more than that, it’s actually a story of how an eminently qualified, capable diplomat was downed by a convergence of personal rivalry, institutional pique, and possibly Iraqi sectarian politics.

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First, a bit about McGurk, for the story would mean nothing if the end of his career weren’t a loss. He’s 39, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, former director of Iraq and Afghanistan affairs in President Bush’s National Security Council, and a senior adviser to the last three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad (Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey). Under Bush, he played a big role in negotiating the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, which set the terms for the continued presence, and the ultimate withdrawal, of U.S. military personnel in Iraq. For Obama, he suspended a lucrative book contract to return to Iraq and negotiate the 2011 accord that ended U.S. involvement in the war. In short, he’s an experienced, bipartisan, if not nonpartisan, professional who, the White House must have thought, would appeal to players on the ground in Iraq and both sides of the aisle in Washington.

One senior diplomat, who asked to remain nameless so he wouldn’t be dragged into the controversy, told me on Tuesday that McGurk “knows the actors and portfolio better than any other U.S. official,” and called his treatment and withdrawal “a tragedy and a disgrace.” A half-dozen other officials who worked with McGurk, assured anonymity so they could speak candidly, were equally enthusiastic about him and appalled by the process of his dismissal.

President Obama nominated McGurk as ambassador on March 27. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held confirmation hearings June 6. In the weeks leading up to the hearings, a few Republicans, most notably Sen. John McCain, raised questions about his suitability for the job. McCain had long been critical of Obama—and thus McGurk—for failing to negotiate a deal that would have allowed the United States to keep several thousand soldiers in Iraq even after the withdrawal of combat forces. The issue didn’t even come up at the confirmation hearings. (McCain doesn’t sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, but, even so, a few senior diplomats had argued, to McCain and other critics, that there was no failure in negotiating; rather, Iraq’s leaders simply did not want thousands of American soldiers to remain on their territory.)

But storm clouds were gathering. Two days before the hearing, the McGurk-Chon emails appeared on Flickr, posted by “DiploJoke.” The next day, June 5, they were reproduced on Cryptome.org, a website that reprints classified documents (though rarely, if ever, anything as personal as these emails). Above the documents (also reprinted) was an anonymously penned note:

I rec’d this and thought you might post the details. McGurk is the Ambassadorial Nominee to represent the US in Iraq. His confirmation hearing is June 6. At the height of the war and during the SOFA negotiations while countless American troops and Iraqi civilians were being slaughtered, it appears that Brett McGurk was engaged in an affair with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon. He bragged endlessly about senior-level dinners, the secret SOFA negotiations, and “self-healing” exercises to cure his blue balls.

The next day, a suspended State Department employee named Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, a critical book about his time with a provisional reconstruction team in Iraq (he is under investigation for not clearing the text with his superiors), wrote about the emails on his own website. Over the next week, he waged a near-daily campaign against McGurk’s nomination and, in one blog post, offered himself (perhaps half-jokingly) as a more qualified candidate for the job.

On June 7, the Free Beacon, a Washington conservative website, picked up Van Buren’s trail—and from there the established press followed, at first “reporting on the controversy” (as news agencies often do with stories they’d rather not touch with the proverbial 10 foot pole). Finally, ABC’s Good Morning America picked up on it, and everyone else followed.

On June 13, six of the Foreign Relations Committee’s nine GOP senators wrote their letter to Obama, urging him to “reconsider” the nomination, assailing McGurk for his “unprofessional conduct” and “poor judgment.”