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.

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.”

On June 18, McGurk sent a letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, withdrawing from the fray. Peter Van Buren posted a blog post with the headline “McGurk Pulls Out” and a cartoon figure exclaiming “Victory Is Mine.”

Finally, on June 19, Obama posted a notice, officially withdrawing the nomination.

So what happened here? What’s in these emails? What do they signify—and not signify? With all the fuss about recent security leaks, is there no one in the Senate who’s just a little bit concerned about the leaking of private emails that—however “steamy” they may be—have nothing to do with policy?

The emails, by the way, are no wilder than PG-13. You can read them for yourself. They show a diplomat and a reporter exchanging flirtatious banter and, in the end, falling ga-ga for each other. As we’ve learned since, they were each in collapsing marriages at the time; they soon divorced and married each other. Chon has left the Journal in recent days, charged with violating the newspaper’s code of conduct—not in the way you might think but because she showed McGurk unpublished stories As far as I can tell, McGurk violated no diplomatic code (if he did, a lot of diplomats should have lost their jobs over the decades).

An important point: There is nothing in these emails that suggests McGurk leaked Chon classified information. Really, if these emails are the best (or worst) that the source could come up with, they’re almost shockingly tame.

Which leads to a tantalizing question: Where did the emails come from? Most likely, it was from someone who worked with McGurk in the embassy at the time. (The data bases no longer exist; someone with access must have pilfered the emails years ago, then hung on to them.)

I asked Van Buren by email whether he was the source. In a reply, he denied it. He’s almost certainly telling the truth. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the two didn’t know each other when they were in Iraq. (McGurk’s name doesn’t appear in Van Buren’s tell-all book.) At most, Van Buren—whose blog has the tone of a 12-year-old rebel who wants to be Matt Drudge when he grows up—served as a conduit, wittingly or not. (The cover note to Cryptome.org read like his style.)

Certainly someone was out to get Brett McGurk. This isn’t surprising. Those who knew him at the time have known about his enemies as well. When Obama named McGurk as his ambassador, Ayad Allawi—Iraq’s former prime minister and now the nominal head of a bloc opposed to Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government—issued a statement, declaring that he and his bloc would boycott the U.S. embassy, should McGurk’s nomination be approved.*

Back in 2006, near the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, Allawi had pressed U.S. officials to help him oust Maliki. McGurk advised him, perhaps more firmly than others, to back off. Though many U.S. officials were growing frustrated with Maliki, he was the country’s elected prime minister, and so they had to deal with him. Allawi, however, took McGurk’s stance as a sign of a pro-Shia bias—and he did so, very vocally, throughout McGurk’s time in Baghdad and apparently still does now.

This pressure may have spilled over to Capitol Hill. In their letter to Obama, the six GOP senators expressed “strong concerns” about McGurk’s “ability to work with Iraqi officials.” However, Ramzy Mardini, a former State Department official and now an Iraq specialist at the Institute for the Study of War, told me that in fact Allawi “is largely a figurehead with a dwindling constituency” and that other members of his bloc “were privately agnostic about the McGurk nomination and were willing to work with him for the very fact that he was appointed by the president of the United States.”*

However, during McGurk’s days in Baghdad, some of his embassy colleagues were leaning toward Allawi, even encouraging the Sunni politician in his ambitions. McGurk got into intense disputes with these colleagues, some of whom are still involved in political or business ventures that would be served by a degree of Kurdish autonomy that is favored more by Allawi than by Maliki

In any case, access to email files might have been wrangled by a number of people in the embassy or back in the State Department, who had it in for McGurk somewhere along the way—and here, too, is another possible source of his ill fate.

McGurk is not a foreign-service officer, and many in the FSO community do not like it when an ambassadorship—particularly of a big, high-profile embassy like the one in Iraq—goes to someone outside their ranks. They didn’t like it when Obama named Michael McFaul, his special assistant on Russia, as ambassador to Moscow. And they saw the prospect of Brett McGurk as another interloper. Never mind that one of the best of their own, Ryan Crocker, made several calls to senators, pleading strongly on McGurk’s behalf.

In the end, McGurk’s nomination could have been saved. Three of the nine Republicans on the panel did not sign the letter to Obama. Then there are the 10 Democratic members who could have been pressured to stay onboard.

But few passions were exerted on McGurk’s behalf. Some Democrats saw him as a Bush man who, more than that, was one of the early advocates for the Iraq “surge.” Neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden seems to have had any problems with this. But apparently that wasn’t true of some in the legislative rank and file. It would have been a fight to keep him on, and the White House has too many other, bigger fights to manage. In recent days, White House spokesmen said in statements and press conferences that they were still behind McGurk, but their words weren’t singing. It’s not clear whether McGurk was pushed or whether he jumped of his own accord. It also doesn’t much matter.

That too is “a tragedy and a disgrace.”

Corrections, June 22, 2012: This article originally described Ayad Allawi as the leader of a Sunni bloc. He is a secular Shiite. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also originally stated that Ramzy Mardini served in the State Department during the Bush and Obama administrations. He did not serve in the State Department during the Obama administration. (Return to the corrected sentence.)