James F. Jeffrey stepped down as US ambassador to Iraq in June, and retired from the foreign service, after serving two years in Baghdad overseeing the largest US embassy in the world during the withdrawal of the last US troops from the country. Other recent top posts in a distinguished three-decade foreign service career include serving as deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, US ambassador to Turkey, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East policy, special adviser on Iraq to the secretary of state, deputy chief of mission in Kuwait, and US ambassador to Albania. Earlier in his career, Jeffrey served with the US Army in Germany and Vietnam from 1969 to 1976. He spoke to Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen in Washington on Aug. 2.
In the interview, Jeffrey fiercely defended the Obama administration’s 2011 negotiations with the Iraqis on a possible US military follow-on force in Iraq, and Washington’s insistence that legal immunities for such a force had to be granted by Iraq’s parliament. And he defended the decision to pull the plug on the negotiations last fall when Iraqi leaders refused to bring the issue to parliament. “Here is the thing. It costs a million dollars to keep a U.S. soldier a year in a combat zone like Iraq,” Jeffrey said. “So somebody tell me what we buy with $30 billion dollars of expenditure for 30,000 troops in Iraq in 2012. … Tell me where else in the entire Middle East, including Turkey, do we keep ground troops just for presence' sake? … The last time we did it for any amount of time was Lebanon 1983. I rest my case.”
While calling the current dispute between the Iraqi central and Kurdish Regional Government over the Kurds’ right to issue its own oil deals “a mess,” Jeffrey also expressed hope that there might be more incentive for compromise in the wake of the defeat of a no-confidence motion leveled against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this past spring.
Jeffrey said he is “deeply” concerned that the Syria conflict could further ignite wider sectarian strains in the region, but said that he did not already see such a Balkans-type scenario emerging yet. And he discussed the prospects for US diplomacy with Iran, even as he said US policy to Iran remains riven by an undercurrent of ambivalence over whether the ultimate policy is behavior change or regime change. “My experience … is, even when we have taken a policy decision to deal on a realpolitik basis with these [illiberal] states, … it is hard for us to enter into compromises, to trust,” he said. “Somehow it does have an influence even when regime change is not officially on the table.”
“I think that it’s very difficult to negotiate with the Iranians,” Jeffrey said. “Even when they want to communicate and want to put positions on the table, they have very great difficulties figuring out ways to communicate. They have internal inconsistencies, and their understanding of their interlocutors is very, very limited. It’s a very difficult thing.”
Al-Monitor: You managed to be at the top of two ideologically very different administrations.
Jeffrey: I would disagree. I think in terms of foreign policy, one could say they were Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
Al-Monitor: Even on Iraq?
Jeffrey: Oh yeah. I thought there was a great deal of foreign policy continuity between the two administrations. Just as fortunately there was at the top in dealing with the economic crisis. I think this is one of the unsung, but heroic stories of Washington. How in the midst of both financial potential catastrophe and foreign policy crises, the hand-off was so well done. And the Obama administration by and large, while it has had different accents, for example with Israel, and in [Obama’s June 2009] speech in Cairo, it has all in all pursued, in fact, policies in Iraq or Afghanistan that are not that dissimilar to that of the Bush administration. In Iraq, you have to start with the reality that the Bush administration in 2008 agreed to withdraw all the forces by the end of 2011. The Obama administration decided while it would carry that out, and in fact, ended the US combat role in Iraq in August 2010, it was willing to consider keeping some forces to do training, and to generally contribute to regional stability. I supported that, as did the administration. In the end, however, while the Iraqis were willing to have a US training presence, they were not willing to give full-blown legal immunities.
Al-Monitor: So regarding the accusations by some lawmakers that the Obama administration wasn’t really trying to keep a follow-on force in Iraq?
Jeffrey: They tried. I had very clear guidance from the very top to try to secure an agreement. We tried very hard and the Iraqis tried hard.
Al-Monitor: The Iraqis wouldn’t bring the legal immunity vote to parliament?
Jeffrey: They didn’t want to bring it to parliament. First of all, because the Sadrists were bitterly opposed. Iran would have made mischief. But most importantly —people aren’t focusing on this but they should — countries, particularly in the Middle East but not just there, do not like to give us legal immunities. There is a long record of Iraqi anger at our behavior, rightly or wrongly. And they don’t want to do that. … Iraq, with all of our support, is a democracy, and under its constitution and democratic principles, granting legal immunity obviously has to go to the parliament which makes the laws.
Al-Monitor: And the US insisted that the decision had to go to Iraq’s parliament?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. … I spent countless hours with Judge Medhat, the constitutional court chief, with the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others. The prime minister was interested in other alternatives. But many of the politicians and the courts said absolutely not. And of course the courts are determinant. If you have a status of forces agreement that grants immunity and the courts don’t recognize it, it’s useless. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Al-Monitor: Some Washington Iraq watchers thought the administration wasn’t negotiating effectively to get the deal through.
Jeffrey: Here is the thing. It costs a million dollars to keep a US soldier a year in a combat zone like Iraq. So somebody tell me what we buy with $30 billion of expenditure for 30,000 troops in Iraq in 2012. The last fire fights that conventional American troops got in were in September 2010, and they were minor fights carried out by people who were part of a training team with Iraqi forces. … Tell me where else in the entire Middle East, including Turkey, do we keep ground troops just for presence sake? Other than Kuwait — which is special, given 1991 — we don’t keep ground troops anywhere in the Middle East and we never have in at least 30 years apart from the Gulf war. The last time we did it for any amount of time was Lebanon 1983. I rest my case.
Al-Monitor: What about the uptick in instability and violence in Iraq recently.
Jeffrey: You’ve got the old problems. The continued fissures … between the Kurds, Sunnis and the Shia. That came to a head at end of last year, and then manifested itself three months ago in this campaign to have a vote of no-confidence against Maliki. That has not been successful. I did not think it would be successful. And now they are trying to find a way forward. ... But while you have these fissures, there are also links between the three groups as well. And it’s all being carried out in a democratic way. They are all at each other’s throats, but so are people in Washington and in Germany and in Italy. And so it’s a democratic process. The other problem of course is the resilience of the remnants of al Qaeda. It is remnants but they are al Qaeda. And they came back and you have seen somewhat larger number of attacks since the summer of 2010, sporadic, but basically suicide bombings. They don’t hold territory. They don’t seem to have any clout in the population that we could see. But it’s very hard to finally eliminate them.
Al-Monitor: Have they been migrating to Syria?
Jeffrey: Some of the al-Qaeda people have gone to Syria. Many of these series of major suicide bombing car bombings in the major cities including one that took out defense ministry people have the mark of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: How is the Syria violence affecting Iraq?
Jeffrey: Very dramatically, and it’s very worrisome. While this is a huge opportunity for us in the general struggle in most of the region and most of the international community versus Iran, the danger is that the conflict will slip out of control and become a regional Sunni vs. Shia conflict. We see some of that in Syria. The Iraqis are afraid of it. You see this in the way the three different Iraqi groups — the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia — all have different reactions to Syria. You see this in Bahrain, and in many voices in Saudi Arabia, some close to the government. And it’s a very worrisome development.
Al-Monitor: You don’t see it already as a sectarian war?
Jeffrey: I don’t see it as that so far. … But that could all change. The analogy I use … is the Balkans. Where, at the end of the day, our nightmare scenario throughout that decade was a massive regionwide Orthodox versus Muslim conflict that in the end would pull in Turkey and Greece on opposite sides.
Al-Monitor: What about the Turks expressing the irony that the Americans and Iranians tell them the same things about Iraq and Maliki’s independence from Iran.
Jeffrey: This apparent superficial, surface alignment of views does not reflect any discussions with the Iranians or any deep sharing of values. But rather it reflects that for Iran, Iraq is an "economy of force" policy, at least so far. What that means is the status quo is OK to them. They have far more pressing interests in Syria, Lebanon, with the international oil trade and with the nuclear portfolio. And there are certain risks to Iran if it tries to push too far.
Al-Monitor: What do you see as the prospects for a diplomatic resolution with Iran over its nuclear program?
Jeffrey: It has again been stated that it is President Obama’s very clear policy that we will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. And that in pursuit of that policy, nothing is taken off the table. Which suggests military force in extremis. That is a very strong statement. And I think the US approach is in synch with that of Europe and I hope of some in Iran trying to find a negotiated settlement. I think that it’s very difficult to negotiate with the Iranians. I saw that in the Baghdad talks [between the P5+1 and Iran in Baghdad in May]. Even when the Iranians want to communicate and want to put positions on the table, they have very great difficulties figuring out ways to communicate. They have internal inconsistencies, and their understanding of their interlocutors is very, very limited. It’s a very difficult thing. But it’s clear that both sides will have to make major decisions as to whether they want a compromise position or not.
Al-Monitor: Do you think we are on a trajectory toward conflict with Iran?
Jeffrey: Define conflict. We are in a conflict. To quote [Defense historian] David Crist, it is a twilight war. It was certainly pretty hot as I had rockets landing all around me in July 2011 in the Green Zone.
Al-Monitor: And you know that was Iran?
Jeffrey: It was Iran.
Al-Monitor: And their message was?
Jeffrey: I don’t know, but they eventually stopped it because we kicked back.
Al-Monitor: So you can push back?
Jeffrey: Yeah. You can push back. Najaf in ’04, Basra in ‘08, Sadr City ‘08, southern Iraq 2011 are all examples of it. But the context of this is when the Iranians are pursuing limited objectives, or economy of force. Whether pushing back is the right thing when you are pushing against their core national objectives, I am not so sure. Take a look at how much it took to end the Iran-Iraq war, which they thought was a core objective of theirs.
Al-Monitor: You mentioned that US policy to Iran still seems to have tension between pursuing regime change vs. behavior change. Certainly that was evident during the Bush administration, but do you still think that is in play in the Obama administration?
Jeffrey: Here is the problem. American foreign policy since 1918 and Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points can be summarized in one sentence: regime change are us. We are all about creating a liberal, pacifistic, rule of law, protect human rights, free trade, international order. That is what we have done. … Overall context matters. If at same level, even if instinctively, subconsciously, implicitly, our institutions, particularly the Congress and executive branch, basically consider states that don’t accept this [liberal] agenda … We somehow don’t consider them truly legitimate. While we deal with them, and negotiate with them, sometimes successfully -- look at China — we have our doubts. My experience … is, even when we have taken a policy decision to deal on a realpolitik basis with these states that aren’t part of the plan, it is hard for us to enter into compromises, to trust, because at the end of the day, we know that these are the Other. Somehow it does have an influence even when regime change is not officially on the table.
Al-Monitor: But now we have learned our lesson from regime change. You lived through it.
Jeffrey: This question came up at Washington Institute. I believe my answer was, "If you want to be serious about regime change, I give you Iraq 2003. Have a nice day."
Al-Monitor: Can you talk about the Kurdish/Iraqi oil disputes?
Jeffrey: It’s a mess. You have Total and Chevron joining Exxon in negotiating with the Kurdish Regional Government. The KRG just announced that it would start pumping 100,000 barrels a day through a central government pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan. It’s all tied up in the no-confidence vote against Maliki in various ways that’s hard to fathom. That effort now is flagging. And therefore I suspect there is more room for compromise. That is certainly my hope. There are all kinds of ways to solve this through compromise on both sides. What we have not seen is a willingness to compromise. And of course, two key questions that are at the bottom that everybody should keep their eyes on. One is, right now, Kurdistan gets almost all of its money for government operations and economy from an Iraqi central government subsidy of 17% of Iraq’s overall oil earnings. Almost all the oil [in that fund] is from the south. That is somewhat contradictory to the arguments of the Kurds, and raises the questions what would happen if that subsidy went away.The second issue is, all of these oil fields in the north, how will the oil and gas get out, if the central government opposes these deals and opposes a subordinate element of the state of Iraq cutting its own international deals, specifically with Turkey and major purchasers? That question nobody has answered convincingly to me.