What's obvious, though, is that the Americans are not going to be able to maintain the ambitious presence that they had hoped would buttress their influence in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. As recently as a year ago, we were still being told that the embassy's civilian staff would grow even as the troops departed. But now that the "war on terror" seems to be winding down, so, too, is enthusiasm for the much-touted civilian engagement that was supposed to reinforce and extend America's achievements on the battlefield. Remember all that impressive talk from Hillary Clinton about ramping up "civilian power"?
That's history now. For one thing, America has already spent reams of money to fund grand democracy-building exercises like the ones followed its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those efforts were never particularly popular with ordinary Americans even before the financial crisis devastated the U.S. economy. Remember how George W. Bush campaigned against "nation building" as a presidential candidate back in 2000? President Obama returned to the theme last year, memorably declaring in one of his speeches last year that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home."
Promoting sound institutions and good governance in other countries was never going to be a push-over. It requires enormous amounts of time and labor. It's expensive. And it's hard to track results. Here's what one Iraqi who works for a U.S.-funded NGO wrote me in a recent email:
For more than a year now there have been signs that the U.S. is losing interest in the civilian aspects of the transition in Iraq -- transparency, accountability, rule of law, participation, rights, etc. It's sad to watch. There is a U.S. psychological retreat that began when the last Provincial Reconstruction Teams were closed down, in September 2010 I believe, accompanied by American disappointment in the results of U.S. involvement in Iraq since 2003... The political problems in Iraq were so intractable in 2010 and 2011 and stability so precarious -- still is -- that the U.S. has little leisure to worry about democracy, rule of law, etc...
The other point of this story it's that it's not at all clear that the Iraqi government wants those civilians to be in Baghdad in the first place. The Times story pointed out that one of the major problems that could be prompting the drawdown is the Iraqi government's reluctance to issue visas and permits to the people who are supposed to work at the embassy. Many of those people, it turns out, are private security contractors -- widely hated by the Iraqis since the notorious 2007 incident involving guards from the now-defunct security company Blackwater, who were accused of shooting 17 Iraqi civilians.
The Iraqi resentment of such firms, which during the U.S. occupation all too often acted like a law unto themselves, is entirely understandable. The problem is that the civilians who have far more benign agendas -- like, say, the United States Institutes of Peace staffers who have been training local Iraqis in the urgently needed skill of conflict resolution -- can't do their work without guards to protect them.
But it doesn't stop there. The Iraqi government also has its equivalents of Faiza Abul-Naga. For them, the presence of all those police instructors and anti-corruption consultants is an affront, an irritant, and perhaps even a threat. Of late, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has shown every indication that he aims to concentrate power in himself, his political party, and his Shiite sectarian brethren. Does he really care whether those U.S.-funded democracy promoters get their visas? Probably the opposite.