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Benghazi blowback hamstrings US role in post-IS Iraq

Congress is weighing America's role after Mosul amid looming budget cuts and paralyzing partisanship.
Armed members of Shi'ite militia Hashid Shaabi ride a motorbike near Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 27, 2016. Smoke in the background is from burning oilfields set ablazed by Islamic State fighters. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic - RTX2QNPU

Congress is struggling to figure out America's diplomatic role in Iraq after the Islamic State's defeat amid looming budget cuts and a risk-averse culture following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Just back from a trip to Iraq and Lebanon, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned Feb. 28 that there is a risk that Shiite militias in Iraqi could become a major political force just like Hezbollah in Lebanon. He urged a "longer-term political commitment" in Iraq to help reconcile warring sectarian parties and stop that from happening.

"The Shiite militias are an enduring and existential problem for Iraq as they attempt to turn battlefield success into political success," Corker said at a hearing on "Iraq after Mosul." He added, "Candidly, we're setting the precursor for in some ways a Hezbollah-like entity in Iraq, just like we have in Lebanon."

That message doesn't seem to be getting through to a Donald Trump administration largely fixated on short-term counterterrorism operations, however. The White House on Feb. 27 proposed a $54 billion increase in military spending, paid for by cuts in domestic programs and foreign aid.

On Feb. 27, more than 120 retired senior military officials wrote to Republican and Democratic in the House and Senate urging them not to shortchange US diplomacy. A day later, the Trump administration doubled down, floating a 37% cut to the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Hardin Lang, a former UN peacekeeping official now with the Center for American Progress, testified at the Feb. 28 hearing in favor of a "diplomatic surge" inside Iraq to deal with the post-IS aftermath. Without adequate follow-up, several lawmakers agreed, the conditions will remain ripe for another insurgency. 

But Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, questioned the usefulness of such a surge in the current environment. He advocated for beefing up Iraq's security forces first and foremost to address Iraqis' top-of-mind safety concerns.

"From having been in Iraq a long time, if you can't get out of the embassy, if you can't move, if you can't meet people, it's a waste of time anyway," Knights said. "So in some ways if we're going to do the diplomatic surge it's got to include accepting risk, it's got to include perhaps re-establishing outstations in places like Hillah, where we killed off our main sort of consulate there during the withdrawal days." 

Further complicating matters, the politically charged climate in Washington has been blamed for making US diplomats and development workers more risk-averse — and less effective. Many point to the partisan battle over the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, which was followed by more than a dozen Republican-led hearings and inquiries.

"My sense in talking to diplomats is that … the entire system has become much more risk-averse as a result of Benghazi," Lang told Al-Monitor. He said USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which used to embed with special forces under Pentagon authority in order to evaluate the political situation in places such as Afghanistan, no longer can do so.

"There's a political cost for [the State Department and USAID] now as a bureaucracy to engage in that kind of activity and it's just very difficult for them to do so," he said. "And for anybody who's very serious about doing community stabilization or reconciliation in these kinds of kinetic or post-kinetic environments, this is essential."

Some lawmakers share those concerns and are urging reforms. 

"At some point we need to recognize that our diplomats and development professionals cannot be effective, particularly in fragile states or in states where there's active conflict, if we expect them to do their jobs with no risk," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told Al-Monitor. "I've met with, and heard from, many career foreign service officers and development professionals from USAID who say, 'I understand there's risk in this job, I signed up for a job working with refugees or working in a strife-torn country, hoping to make a difference. And the only way I can make a difference is out in the field.'"

The partisan fight over Benghazi, Coons said, has had a "long-term negative impact on forward deployment of our diplomats and our development professionals. And I think it's time for us to have a thoughtful, bipartisan review of the consequences."

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