In the wake of Obama’s nominee for Iraq ambassador withdrawing his name from consideration last week after an unusually bruising ordeal, it’s a fair bet the Obama administration is inclined to go with a safe, more easily confirm-able pick for its next nominee for the post.
Washington Iraq experts say they expect the new nominee to be announced in the next couple weeks, and have offered a somewhat lengthy list of diplomats they have heard are in the mix for the post overseeing the largest US embassy in the world.
The last US Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, left Baghdad earlier this month and formally retired from the State Department in a ceremony last week. His deputy, the Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Robert Stephen Beecroft, is currently the de facto acting ambassador, conducting meetings that the ambassador otherwise would have. Several Washington Iraq hands consider that the administration may decide to keep Beecroft, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, in the job.
Another leading contender on the short list is the current US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, according to a source close to the administration who declined to be identified. Jones was confirmed last summer as the US Ambassador to Jordan—perhaps the best indicator of his ability to get confirmed in the current atmosphere. He previously served as the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Iraq and was very involved in the transition from Pentagon- to State-lead of US efforts in the country. Jones also previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, DCM in Cairo, Governor Coordinator for Al Anbar Province, Iraq; and as Iraq/Iran director in the NSC, among other assignments and is considered to be a rising star in the State Department (and White House). Meantime, the situation in Jordan is considered to have stabilized sufficiently after some initial jitters early into the Arab uprisings that it is not considered overly disruptive to possibly move Jones next door to Iraq, if the nomination proceeds, all things considered, sources suggested.
Other contenders: several Washington Iraq “hawks” are rumored to want US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford, for Iraq. (Though some of the same hawks previously moved to block Ford’s confirmation for the Syria post in 2010, but later changed their minds.) Ford, one of the State Department’s leading Arabists, previously served as the deputy ambassador in Iraq, and as ambassador to Algeria, speaks fluent Arabic and has impressed Republicans and Democrats alike with his principled and brave show of support for Syrian demonstrators even as the US embassy in Damascus had to close for security reasons late last year.
Ford was also rumored to be on the short list when Brett McGurk was chosen by the White House earlier this year.. (So too was then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeff Feltman, who last month retired from the State Department to take a senior post at the United Nations). But the feeling then was that the Obama administration was reluctant to remove Ford from the Syria file at such a bloody, sensitive time. That consideration would seem to still be a factor, but perhaps less so now as the conflict has so intensified that it is increasingly taking more bandwidth of senior US policymakers day to day.
Ron Schlicher, the former US ambassador to Cyprus, deputy chief of mission and later acting ambassador to Lebanon, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, consul general in Jerusalem, State Department principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, and State Department Iraq coordinator, is also another widely regarded State Department veteran Middle East troubleshooter, rumored by Iraq hands to be in the mix.
James Cunningham, former US Ambassador to Israel and currently deputy US Ambassador to Afghanistan, was also said by one former senior US diplomat to be under consideration for Baghdad. (But with the imminent departure of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, some see it may more sense to promote Cunningham to succeed Crocker in Kabul.)
Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East David Satterfield, who resigned from the State Department in 2009 to head up the multinational forces monitoring the Egyptian Sinai, has been in town this week and is said to be interested in the Baghdad post as well. Among his qualifications, Satterfield previously served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Baghdad, and later as coordinator for Iraq and advisor for then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Clinton and her senior advisors would like to see a woman in the prestigious Baghdad envoy role, some sources say. But of several qualified women diplomats, most already seem to have been assigned elsewhere: former US viceroy in Basra Barbara Leaf is said to have a new as yet unannounced assignment; acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones is likely to be kept in the job running the whole bureau; Liz Dibble is recovering from the sudden death of her husband and fellow veteran diplomat Philo Dibble last year; current US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is needed in Cairo.
The Back Channel’s sources seem to be placing their bets for now on Jones or Beecroft.
(Photo: U.S. marines raise an U.S. flag to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner during the formal opening of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone January 5, 2009. REUTERS/Erik de Castro.)