Party politics, foreign interference handicap Iraq’s diplomacy

With foreign policy in Iraq subjected to partisan whims and forms of foreign influence, how can a foreign minister with professional ambitions hope to work?
Sunday 20/01/2019
Brave soul. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim (R) meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, last December. (dpa)
Brave soul. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim (R) meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, last December. (dpa)

Iraq suffers from an absence of a centralised decision-making process due to the multiplicity of the ideological backgrounds of different political parties, even though the executive governmental and presidential teams belong to the same group of Shia Islamist parties.

The country, which does not enjoy full sovereignty over its territory, has become a hunting ground for various foreign intelligence services. Iraq is rife with armed factions that can affect top political decisions. No wonder that, in 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) took control of one-third of Iraq’s territory with no significant resistance.

The minimal requirements for a functional Iraqi diplomacy do not exist. Therefore, actions by the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not go beyond simple public relations.

There are many examples illustrating Iraq’s lack of sovereignty and independence. It is not surprising that the conventions of international protocol are not respected. The latest example is US President Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq.

It might be argued that what took place was a continuation of the practices followed during the US occupation of Iraq but protocol was also breached during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest visit to Baghdad. What justifies the welcome of Pompeo at Baghdad airport by Iraqi parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi? If the Iraqi Foreign Affairs minister was absent, couldn’t another cabinet member or the deputy prime minister carry out this task?

There are unfortunately many other painful examples of diplomatic blunders but what is even more dangerous is the absence of qualified staff at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The ministry used to train and recruit its cadres at the famous Foreign Service Institute. Hundreds of highly qualified diplomats have graduated from the institute since its founding in 1973. Appointments in the diplomatic service abroad were decided based on the characteristics of the host country and Iraqi interests.

All of that has changed. Today, the quota system is everywhere. Loyalty considerations are the hallmark of ambassadorial appointments. Even less important positions are rarely given to qualified personnel. The situation is so bad that people with no university degree are being appointed ambassadors.

The troubling aspect of the affair is that there is no shortage of qualified diplomats in the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Had the Iraqi parties had the minimum decency of placing the reputation and interests of the country first, they would have managed its operations professionally and avoided exposing the country’s dirty linen to the rest of the world, especially with social media platforms laying bare shortcomings.

A recent example is the video clip showing the Iraqi consul in Mashhad, Iran, promoting a private beauty salon there. You can’t fall lower than that. Thankfully, that person was summoned to Baghdad by the minister of Foreign Affairs.

Iraqi diplomats used to be keen on protecting the reputation of their country, unlike some of today’s foreign service officers who are interested only in peddling alcoholic beverages and other illicit objects.

The state institutions in Iraq have experienced widespread destruction that would require comprehensive and bold reforms. What is remarkable today, however, is to see the courage of the current minister, Mohamed Alhakim, in his quest to change things at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The minister is very brave but without adequate political backing he will be vulnerable to those who would like to find fault with any stand he takes.

At a recent news conference, Alhakim said Iraq supported the two-state solution to the Palestinian question, expressing a position supported by the rest of Arab countries and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Immediately after the news conference, Alhakim had to contend with a barrage of criticism from the different political parties, led by Nuri al-Maliki’s list, which threatened the minister with being fired “because he crossed the lines concerning the liberation of all of Palestine.”

With foreign policy in Iraq subjected to partisan whims and forms of foreign influence, how can a foreign minister with professional ambitions hope to work? There is no doubt that Alhakim’s path is going to be strewn with perils. He risks surrendering to the power of the parties or packing his bags and returning to his previous place of refuge abroad if he is keen on living by professional principles.

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