Iraq's attempt to maintain US influence on the cheap could prove costly
Iraq’s loss of lobbying firepower comes as Donald Trump looks to pull the United States out of Iraq following the defeat of the Islamic State.
Author: Jack Detsch
Cash-strapped Baghdad is sticking to a tight lobbying budget despite a surge in regional challenges and a related explosion in foreign influence spending since President Donald Trump took office.
Iraq doled out just $421,000 to lobbyists in the US capital in 2017, a 40% drop from the previous year, according to public disclosures reviewed by Al-Monitor. The pullback promises to only accelerate this year with the demise of the Podesta Group, Baghdad’s chief advocate in Washington since 2013, and the termination of a $120,000 contract with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck after less than a year.
That leaves the Livingston Group, which Iraq paid a paltry $20,000 in 2017, as the country’s sole remaining lobbyist. After Podesta’s breakup, a number of its clients — notably Moldova, Japan, the Qatar-owned Golden Pass LNG Terminal in Houston and the Gulenist Alliance for Shared Values — followed former CEO Kimberley Fritts to her new firm, Cogent Strategies, but so far Iraq has not.
The loss of lobbying firepower comes at a delicate time as Trump eyes the exits following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) and US policymakers bristle at Iranian gains in the country.
Both the State and Defense departments are seeking to slash their assistance budgets for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. And the Pentagon recently announced plans to transfer much-needed mine clearing equipment out of the country to Syria, where the battle against IS continues.
Much of the remaining US aid will attempt to plug up Iraq’s border with Syria, where US officials worry that Iran-linked groups could ferry weapons and materiel to their Shiite counterparts. The Defense Department’s counter-IS train-and-equip funding provides specific outlays to deal with the border threat.
Experts say the new aid will focus on limiting the mobility of Shiite militias, suggesting that the United States is more focused on dealing with Iran than fixing Iraq.
“It’s very hard if you’re trying to tamp down at a border crossing and you want to counter them that way,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I’m getting the impression there’s no hard strategic policy for Syria or Iraq and how to deal with Iran’s presence.”
Simultaneously, the surprise victory of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and pro-Iranian militias over US-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the May parliamentary elections has upset bilateral relations. Immediately afterward, the House targeted more than a dozen of the winners in a key Defense bill over their links to Iran, although the provision did not survive reconciliation with the Senate.
Despite its misgivings, the United States has so far accepted the outcome of the elections, with Trump himself calling the results “pretty conclusive” and adding that the US administration will “speak with those who won and see what happens.” And just last month, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS asserted that US troops would remain “as long as we think they’re needed” to stabilize the country and prevent a resurgence of the militant group.
Iraq, however, remains deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine Iran, a key trading partner, and is seeking relief from US sanctions. And a donor conference in Kuwait in February proved a bust, raising only $30 billion in pledges out of the $88 billion needed to rebuild after IS’ onslaught.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni tribes and Christian minority boosted their lobbying in 2017 amid increasing fears of Shiite sectarianism.
Salahuddin, Saddam Hussein’s home province, paid the influential Washington law firm Squire Patton Boggs $59,000 last year before ending the contract this May. And the Iraqi National Project, which has attempted to resist the rise of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units, dropped $290,000 to retain Mark Salih. Salih’s Iraq Stability and Security Program in turn paid the Washington Strategy Group $129,000 last year.
Iraq’s embattled Christians, who lost a champion in Congress when Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) resigned in December amid allegations of sexual harassment, have also established a lobbying presence via the Ninevah Plains Defense Fund. The Illinois-based nonprofit raised $99,000 in the 12 months to Feb. 28 to notably help equip Iraqi Christian militias with new uniforms.
Finally, the Iraq Private Banks League hired Greenwich Media Strategies in June for $25,000 to develop a public relations strategy. The effort, led by Hagar Chemali, a former National Security Council official and Treasury Department spokeswoman during the Barack Obama administration, also covers the Central Bank of Iraq.