No More Mr. Nice Guy

The sad end of Ambassador Michael McFaul's troubled tenure in Moscow.

Strange as it may seem, there is no tutorial for U.S. ambassadors that teaches them how not to look like fools. The State Department may have its courses on diplomatic protocol, and the White House its talking points on the best and least boat-rocking means of articulating U.S. foreign policy. But there's a reason that our finest diplomats never learn how to project sangfroid and seriousness even in the face of unremitting hostility. That's because these are traits that cannot really be taught. George Kennan, with his incisive and prescient observations about Stalinism, and Robert Schwarz Strauss, with his f-bomb-dropping stewardship of the post-Communist order, were to-the-manner-born and knew exactly what and whom they were up against. It may have also helped that neither of them tweeted.

The news on Tuesday, Feb. 4, that Michael McFaul, the headline-grabbing, social media-obsessed U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has decided to call it quits and return to the calmer quadrangles of Stanford University has been met with a characteristic public outpouring of praise for a job well done. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that, among other things, "Mike has a clear-eyed understanding of the realities of diplomacy." Maybe, but Mike's family seems to have an even clearer-eyed understanding of those realities -- they got the hell out of Russia months ago, repairing to the family home in California, which prompted now-confirmed rumors of McFaul's intent to join them imminently. Other emotions -- principally sadness and relief -- attend this diplomatic departure, even if these are to be kept decorously private for now.

The Kremlin, for instance, will be sad to see the nicest, most eager-to-please man to ever inhabit Spaso House quit the joint after only two years of floundering and squirming under the Kremlin's systematic, Vienna Convention-violating sadism. Since first landing in Moscow in January 2012, McFaul has been labeled by various Putinist mouthpieces as a spy, an agent provocateur trying to foment revolution (this on his first day, no less), and even a pedophile. Sometimes, it must be said, he fashioned a rod for his own back. McFaul once told a group of economics students at a Moscow university that the Kremlin had "bribed" Kyrgyzstan into booting the United States off the Manas airbase -- a vital transport hub for troops and supplies into Afghanistan. (The statement was true, but the Russian Foreign Ministry was not amused.)  Just last week, he tweeted an ITAR-TASS article featuring his open invitation to Vladimir Putin to come and watch the Super Bowl with him at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, one of those many aw-shucks moments of Twitter diplomacy rendered unintentionally hilarious by the context. The only known association between the Russian president and American football was Putin's alleged theft of Patriots owner Robert Kraft's diamond-studded Super Bowl ring in 2005. But then, that was our Mike, ever willing to extend the hand of friendship even if its intended recipient could only return the gesture with a punch in the face or a pocketing of the jewelry.

McFaul had a style that was hard to account for or justify, as when he admitted, by way of an apology, that he was "not a professional diplomat." This, too, had the merit of being true; but what, it prompted many to wonder, was he doing in the most difficult diplomatic posting on the planet advertising as much? Or consider the campaign-styled YouTube video heralding his appointment as ambassador, in which McFaul was meant to present himself as a genial Russophile to his host nation, complete with folksy comparisons between Montana, where he grew up, and the Russian regions, where most Russians wish they hadn't. He narrated this introduction, bizarrely, in English.

He did, however, save his bilingual fluency for pique rather than comity. McFaul was stalked so mercilessly by the state-run propaganda channel NTV -- almost certainly with the assistance of Russian intelligence, which knew his schedule in advance and may have even bugged his phones -- that he famously unleashed on a particularly aggravating red-haired correspondent after she buttonholed him outside the office of Lev Ponomaryov's venerable For Human Rights, an NGO which has now been targeted under Putin's "foreign agents" law. On a dreary, snowy day early in his tenure, she interrogated McFaul: Why was he there and what was he really up to? Here, that famous Montana permasmile (which always denoted to me a Bruce Banner-like volatility lying just beneath the surface) disappeared entirely. "[Y]ou guys are always with me," McFaul thundered, coatless, in the cold. "In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You're insulting your own country when you do this, don't you understand?"

The NTV stoogette did understand, only too well, and this primetime gobbet of American dyspepsia was further sensationalized by McFaul's follow-up comment that Russia was a "wild country" (dikaya strana), a slip that gave the state propagandist exactly what she came for. (He later apologized for this, too, saying lamely that he only meant NTV was "wild.")

The outburst led the Russian news cycle and even prompted a State Department rebuke of the Kremlin's suspected surveillance methods, although it apparently did McFaul no favors with the staid old hands at Foggy Bottom, from whose ranks he never graduated and for whom such improvisational defiance was simply not done. The old hands were wrong, though. This was McFaul's finest hour on the job -- a mad-as-hell primal scream that told the truth of what it was like to live under the thuggishness and tedium of Putinism rather than dress it up remotely in impossible theoretical constructs. It was also the perfect moment for introspection in America's approach to Russia because the most high-flown of those theoretical constructs was one of McFaul's own devising. And here is where the relief factor of his resignation comes into play.

McFaul's legacy will undoubtedly be the U.S.-Russian "reset," a policy which a few brave Beltway types still celebrate as an enduring triumph of statecraft. He was its principal architect and foremost exponent, first as the go-to Russianist on Obama's National Security Council, then as ambassador. Yet the policy got off to a memorably bumpy start in 2009 when the word "reset" (perezagruzka) was mistranslated as "overload" (peregruzka) on a button which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to a bemused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a solecism that would prove accidentally correct. The reset was, in practice, a lot like a truck tipping over, or an elevator falling down a shaft, under the weight of an unbearable burden.

This is because it combined cynicism and naiveté simultaneously, beginning with the belief that the placeholder presidency of Dmitry Medvedev augured an era of substantive reform and that all Washington needed to get past the previous era of bad feelings with Moscow was endless dialogue, economic back-scratching, and bilateral commissions on PR-friendly issues such as civil society -- something the Kremlin was only interested in destroying, not cultivating. (An early indicator of this was the appointment of chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov as the Russian co-chairman of a new working group on civil society, an act tantamount to placing a pit bull in charge of a nursery.)  Most dangerously, however, the reset codified the lie that the Cold War was a thing of the past and that, after the bad old years of the Bush administration, Russia and the United States could finally cooperate with each other in a spirit of mutually-assured good faith.

So it was a bath of very cold water indeed for the man who, after the NTV "gotcha" and much else, confessed to Foreign Policy near the end of his ambassadorship's first year: "What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we're seeing right now. That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country. I mean, I'm genuinely confused by it."

That he was genuinely confused by it was precisely the problem.

No one is more disappointed with McFaul's fundamental misapprehension of the Putin regime than Russian dissidents who have long believed, justifiably, that the Obama administration could care less about them because it prefers a transactional realpolitik ("a different relationship"), premised on trade and intermittent episodes of cooperation. Most of these episodes, from nuclear de-proliferation to Iran sanctions to the Syrian chemical disarmament agreement have lately proved subject to diminishing returns where they have not been completely vitiated by Russian provisos, foot-dragging, or outright double-crosses. Yet anti-Putin protestors never believed that McFaul could care less about them. He was always seen as their ally and champion to a degree that has many of them now wishing that some of that hysterical Kremlin propaganda had been legitimate.

His first official meeting in Moscow was -- either famously or notoriously -- with members of the opposition (even though it had been pre-scheduled and not intended to provoke the Kremlin); his first official tweet was directed at Alexey Navalny, now the undisputed leader of that opposition (here, though, it was all McFaul ad-libbing). He also, admirably, tweeted at Navalny during the verdict and sentence reading at the latter's show trial for "embezzlement" last July: "Hi, I'm watching," this time in appropriate Russian. It may not have been "tear down this wall," but it's hard to imagine a career diplomat saying anything to Putin's arch-nemesis facing five years in the gulag.

Many of the dissidents now in the dock, under house arrest, or on probation will nevertheless be happy to see the back of an agonized pantomime that tried too hard to keep up appearances and navigate too many contradictions -- a peregruzka embodied in statesman form. After all, McFaul made a name for himself as an academic pushing democratization and human rights in post-Soviet Russia and then wound up working for a president who sees these as obstacles, rather than objectives, of U.S. foreign policy. The irony could be bitterly disappointing.

A low point in his tenure was McFaul's attempt, at an event held in Washington at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in March 2012, to enlist Navalny in the White House's stated policy of "de-linking" the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment -- a dated, Soviet-era piece of U.S. legislation that made trade with Russia contingent on Moscow's human rights record -- with the passage of the Magnitsky Act, an up-to-date piece of legislation that aimed to blacklist and sanction Russian officials accused of gross human rights abuses. (The act, named for the most famous Russian whistleblower of the Putin era who later, as a corpse, was subjected to his own perverse show trial, became law last year, in spite of not-so-subtle White House pressure to prevent this from happening.) The logic was simple. McFaul needed Jackson-Vanik repealed in order to complete Russia's full accession to the World Trade Organization -- a linchpin of the reset -- and so he claimed at the Peterson event that Navalny was in favor of de-linkage too. Except that Navalny wasn't.

The attempt back-fired catastrophically and earned McFaul a personal reprimand from Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov in the pages of the Wall Street Journal as well as an implicit rebuttal from Navalny, whom they quoted unambiguously on his views. McFaul's real offense, however, was trying to co-opt an embattled dissident in order to sell the Obama administration's agenda -- a cardinal sin in diplomacy and one that still inspires winces among European diplomats who remember it. Every nice tweet, it seems, had a not-so-nice counterpart action.

McFaul said in that YouTube video in 2012 that he'd be coming to Moscow to "help Russians understand who Americans are, what we stand for, and what we seek in our relationship with Russia and the Russian people." Unfortunately, he's leaving with the Russian media portraying America as a country that tortures orphans to death, brainwashes children into becoming homosexuals, supports al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East, eggs on neo-Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine, and otherwise behaves as both a bumbling colossus and a serially defrauded and discombobulated mug in world affairs.

U.S. diplomacy in Moscow is and always will be a difficult trade, not for the faint-of-heart, much less the sensitive bookworm. But trying too hard to be liked and to have your country esteemed at a time when such are not really feasible has a certain quaint American nobility to it, even if it is an enterprise that Saul Bellow would have rightly characterized as the Good Intentions Paving Company.

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The Iraqi Re-Awakening

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is making all the same mistakes that the United States once made in Anbar. Can he change course before al Qaeda overruns the restive province?

Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein -- and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won't be a war, he said confidently, because the American people "have no taste for blood." 

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam's elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country's toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded -- their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to "bleed them slowly" in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general's prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani's knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America's World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him "my American General."

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city's bridges. Without air power, Hamdani's army didn't stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn't rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning -- and after receiving death threats from Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government -- he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani's idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar's Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar's insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers -- they both hated al Qaeda. 

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization's military advisor. The think tank's goal was to unite Anbar's tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work -- alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division -- resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar's Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he's watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants. The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

"People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer," a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. "Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq's strongman. He thought he'd be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister."

But by cracking down on Anbar's Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising.

On Dec. 28, Maliki declared martial law in Ramadi, Anbar's capital, and sent his security services into the city to arrest Iraqi parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the protest movement. In the ensuing melee, five of Alwani's bodyguards were killed, along with his brother and sister. Two days later, after accusing the protest leaders of consorting with terrorists, Maliki imposed a curfew on the province.

A call went out among Anbar residents to resist the curfew, and gunmen soon attacked government security forces, burning police cars and Humvees. The fighting was intense across the province, with Iraqi military units facing off against well-armed local militias.

Maliki soon realized that he had overreached and, on Dec. 31, withdrew his forces from Anbar's largest cities. However, his move only compounded his earlier mistakes -- Fallujah and Ramadi were now left undefended. Over the next several days, much of the province was overrun by tribal militias, as well as by fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In Amman, Hamdani was incensed. "Terrorism is born from the womb of despair," he wrote to me in January, "and is made worse by poor political decisions and bad policies. We are seeing this in Iraq now, when the people of Anbar who were protesting for their rights were called terrorists. The current problems weren't caused by terrorists, but by Nouri al-Maliki's poor political judgment. This didn't need to happen."

* * *

The Marine Corps officers and senior Pentagon officials who met Hamdani for the first time in Amman in 2004 share his bleak assessment.

Among these is Col. Mike Walker, the former commander of the 3rd Civil Affair Group (CAG), a Marine Corps reserve unit that deployed to Anbar after being activated in March 2004. Walker, who spent his career as a California public school math teacher, argues that Maliki's actions are the result of American miscalculations that began when the U.S. failed to make Iran pay for crushing the 2009 Green Movement.

Walker, who maintains sporadic contact with the Anbaris he met in Amman and Iraq, ticks off the resulting series of events, like a row of toppling dominos. The "failure to show resolve" in backing the Green Movement, he says, "signaled American disengagement from the region, emboldened the Assad government in Syria and forced Maliki into Tehran's grasp. As Washington retreated from the region, the vacuum they left behind was filled by Tehran's hardliners. That forced Maliki to tilt further toward Iran, and away from other Arab States and the West."

"Maliki was never a Sunni 'hater,'" Walker adds, "but in seeking a modus vivendi with Iran, he had to pander to their surrogates in Iraq, the radical Shiite members in his ruling coalition. In doing so, he unwisely wasted much of the good will and trust he had developed with the Iraqi Sunni minority."

Walker's thinking reflects the views of the Marines he served with nearly a decade ago. These men are now haunted by news that al Qaeda has re-established a presence in Fallujah, after so many U.S. soldiers lost their lives to drive the jihadist group from the city in 2004. Much like the tribal leaders they met during their deployment, they once again find themselves caught between contending fears -- of Iran on the one hand, and extremist Islamists on the other.

"Once you're engaged in that kind of thing, you never forget it," says Marine Col. Dave Harlan (ret.), who was the 3rd CAG's liaison in Amman. "We forged a political opening because we knew that would save lives. It was the right thing to do. But we should have at least maintained our contact with the tribes. If we'd have built on those contacts, there's no way al Qaeda would have come back." 

But the Anbar Awakening also involved another battle: The struggle between senior U.S. military commanders and powerful political forces within the American government, who opposed the opening for ideological reasons.

Marine Corps Maj. Patrick Maloy (ret.), a 1st Marine Expeditionary Force staff officer who was deployed to Anbar in 2004, says that those conflicts meant that the U.S. military was pursuing the Awakening with one hand tied behind its back.

"Extraordinary efforts were made to deliver Anbar by a select few," Maloy says of the 3rd CAG's efforts in Anbar, "but were then rejected by the State Department and White House. We delivered it anyway, without funding, without support and mostly in the face of those who thought the Awakening was going to go away. But that was never going to happen; the Awakening was the one thing that could have a stabilizing effect."

Top U.S. military and diplomatic officials initially were extremely hostile to the idea of working with Anbar's tribes. When Gen. George Casey, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, learned that the 3rd CAG was talking to Anbar's leaders, he quickly strung up red tape: He barred the Marines from having any future meetings with the tribes without approval of the State Department, reassured interim Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that the meetings had been stopped, and accused 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Cmdr. James Conway of engaging in "a goat rope."

Conway was enraged, particularly since it was Casey who had suggested that his commanders try to co-opt the insurgency. "Conway was so angry I thought he was going to have a stroke," recalls Maloy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went even further: After learning that Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff, had met with Hamdani in Amman, she directed that he be detained, placed under house arrest, escorted out of Jordan, and flown to Baghdad to explain his actions. Coleman had no trouble justifying his behavior once back in the Iraqi capital, telling American officials that talking with Anbar's tribes was better than fighting them house to house in Fallujah.

Conway agreed with his chief of staff and supported continued contact with Anbar's tribes. "Gen. Conway didn't like being laughed at, and he didn't like the implication that his staff officers were amateurs," says one of his former senior officers. The general continued to support contact with Anbar's tribes and quietly did his best to overcome the political obstacles that Washington put in his way. He eventually succeeded: In September 2006, the Anbar Awakening Council was formed, uniting 42 of Anbar's clans.

Jerry Jones, an official who worked in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and who steered the 2004 Anbar opening through the department's treacherous shoals, believes that Anbar served as "a laboratory for what is happening from Morocco to Yemen." The province is a testing ground for Iraqi unity, a battleground between Arab extremists and moderates and forms the borderland where the majority Sunni and Shia worlds rub up against each other.

But Jones, like Hamdani and the Marines of the 3rd CAG, comes down hard on Iraq's prime minister. "It's great that we're going to send Iraq military help to fight al Qaeda," he says, "but what the country really needs is some political tutoring" for its leaders. "If I were Nouri al-Maliki," Jones adds, "and I had a choice between tying my country's future to the mullahs in Iran or to the peoples of Anbar, I'd choose Anbar every time. Hands down."

Maliki, however, seems to be making the opposite decision -- his government is now throwing up the same obstacles to a rapprochement in Anbar as top U.S. officials once did. Baghdad has opposed a rollback of de-Baathification requirements (one of the key demands of the Ramadi protests), a greater share for Anbar in Iraq's resource wealth, and the release of Anbari detainees held in Baghdad's jails.

The language being used now by Baghdad is eerily similar to the rhetoric coming out of Washington a decade ago: No matter how justified their demands, Anbar's leaders are "terrorists."

* * *

The real question is whether Maliki's government will learn any faster than Washington that giving Anbar's Sunnis a share in governing Iraq is the best way to fight Islamist extremists.

If it doesn't, Baghdad could reverse the significant economic and social gains that followed the Awakening. Since 2008, Iraq has been one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, more children are in school than ever before, and the country is undergoing the biggest building boom in its history. And if it remains politically stable, the central bank governor projects that GDP could grow more than 9 percent in the coming year.

For James Clad, a former National Defense University instructor and Department of Defense official who participated in the Amman meetings in 2004, the question now is whether Nouri al-Maliki "will build on what was started, or whether he will squander it away for political reasons."

"The key to political stability is economic growth," Clad adds, "but for that to happen, Anbar needs to be united."

But that's very much in doubt now, as a result of Maliki's heavy-handed actions in Ramadi. "A good portion of Anbar's leadership and about half of the tribes are lined up against Baghdad," a serving U.S. military officer at the Pentagon told me. "That's very bad news. To fight al Qaeda effectively, as they did starting in 2005, the tribes have to be united. Maliki botched this."

Watching from Amman, Raad al-Hamdani is pleased that the Pentagon, at least, is not underestimating what's at stake in the province. "Anbar is only 28 percent of the area of Iraq," he says, "but its influence goes much deeper. The people of Anbar are fighting for their rights, their civil rights. It's the same fight that can be seen on the streets of every Arab country."

The Arab Spring, in his reading, first sprang to life during the Anbar Awakening -- and is being squandered by the machinations of Maliki and Iraq's central government. "The fight for Anbar," he concludes, "is a fight for the soul of the Arab world."