Commentary Magazine


Topic: the U.S. ambassador to Iraq

McGurk Put Through Nomination Ringer

No one who has read Allen Drury’s great novel, Advise and Consent, or seen the movie, can be surprised by how sordid Washington confirmation battles can get. Nevertheless, I am dismayed to see the treatment being accorded Brett McGurk, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Baghdad, whom I met during his days as a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McGurk is a controversial choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He is young (39-years-old), he is not a Foreign Service officer, and he is not an Arabist. Rather, he is a former NSC official under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama whose experience in Iraq extends from 2004 to last year. He spent much of 2004 working for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. embassy, and he returned frequently thereafter as an NSC official under Bush and subsequently as an outside adviser working alongside the U.S. ambassador. McGurk was an early supporter of the surge and had a central role in the negotiation of both the status of force agreement in 2008 (successful) and the one last year (unsuccessful). Critics claim he is too close to Prime Minister Maliki; the opposing Iraqiyah coalition has even come out against McGurk’s nomination, which could limit his effectiveness were he to be confirmed.

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No one who has read Allen Drury’s great novel, Advise and Consent, or seen the movie, can be surprised by how sordid Washington confirmation battles can get. Nevertheless, I am dismayed to see the treatment being accorded Brett McGurk, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Baghdad, whom I met during his days as a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McGurk is a controversial choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He is young (39-years-old), he is not a Foreign Service officer, and he is not an Arabist. Rather, he is a former NSC official under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama whose experience in Iraq extends from 2004 to last year. He spent much of 2004 working for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. embassy, and he returned frequently thereafter as an NSC official under Bush and subsequently as an outside adviser working alongside the U.S. ambassador. McGurk was an early supporter of the surge and had a central role in the negotiation of both the status of force agreement in 2008 (successful) and the one last year (unsuccessful). Critics claim he is too close to Prime Minister Maliki; the opposing Iraqiyah coalition has even come out against McGurk’s nomination, which could limit his effectiveness were he to be confirmed.

But his confirmation appears increasingly embattled not because of his policy views but because of the recent leaks of salacious emails he exchanged with Gina Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, while he was stationed in Baghdad and she was covering the story. (Both were reportedly married to other people at the time and are now married to each other.) Chon has lost her Wall Street Journal job because she did not disclose the relationship to her editors, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put off a vote on McGurk’s nomination, even though, as the Washington Post notes, “the e-mails don’t indicate that McGurk actually shared any sensitive information with Chon.”

Unless there is more to this story than is apparent at first blush, it appears that McGurk is being put through the ringer because of his private life—not because he is unqualified for the job or because his professional conduct has been thrown into serious doubt.

The members of the Senate do not necessarily have to share the judgment of Ryan Crocker, Chris Hill and James Jeffrey—the last three ambassadors to Iraq, all of whom worked closely with McGurk and who have just released a letter offering their “strongest possible endorsement of Brett’s nomination”—but they do at least owe McGurk an up or down vote rather than simply letting his nomination disappear in a morass of innuendo and gossip. And if the senators are worried about leaks, as they should be, they should focus on whoever it was who got access to McGurk’s private emails and leaked them for all the world to read.

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