On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the State Department is making a “remarkable pivot” and planning to reduce the size of Embassy Baghdad by up to half. The reversal marks a dramatic shift in the diplomatic transition in Iraq, which only two months ago had expanded to nearly 16,000 American civilian personnel (mostly security contractors) to take over responsibilities from the military and normalize relations with a postwar Iraq.
Now, however, ideas about the US presence, and specifically the State Department’s role, in Iraq appear to have changed in support of a smaller footprint. According to the Times, State Department officials “spent more than a year planning the expansion,” but this week an embassy spokesman told the paper that both embassy and department officials during the same period have been considering downsizing the U.S. mission in Iraq. The reasons for this apparent about face are not immediately clear, but a timeline of recent news events may be instructive.
Just last week, the Times shed light on the outrage of senior Iraqi officials over the continued use of drones in Iraq. On Tuesday, the Times broke the story again, this time citing a prepared statement by embassy spokesman Michael McClellan, which described plans to significantly reduce embassy staff “primarily by decreasing the number of contractors needed to support the embassy’s operations,” but acknowledging that diplomats would also be “subject to adjustment as appropriate.” Later in the day at the daily press briefing, State spokesperson Victoria Nuland (who said she had only just seen the reporting) said that slashing diplomats by half was out of the question. Rather, she said Deputy Secretary Nides is leading a process to determine the appropriate size of Embassy Iraq, and particularly how to do more with local staff instead of expensive contractors. Nuland rejected the idea of a 50% target and deferred discussing resizing specifics until a review is complete.
Before we get lost in the he-said-she-said shuffle, no matter the details, it looks like State is moving away from a massive, operational presence to go back to its comfort zone, and perhaps assuage Iraqi criticism of American contractors in the process. As Nuland acknowledged yesterday afternoon:
We have been in the process of transitioning this Embassy from a civilian staff that worked within the context of an entire American footprint that included a very large military footprint, which has been going down… The military has traditionally been dependent on a lot of contractor support, some of which stayed to work with us as we move to a civilian structure. So now in the context of getting ourselves to a purely embassy and consulate structure, we are able to take that next step, which is to look at whether contracting is still as necessary.