When the news came out on 22 December that Brett McGurk had stepped down as special US presidential envoy to the Coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, many Iraqi politicians could not stop themselves from jumping for joy at getting rid of the American diplomat who has long been seen as meddling in their country’s politics.
“The resignation of US envoy to the anti-IS International Coalition Brett McGurk is a wise and timely decision,” Iraqi Kurdish politician and the country’s former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari tweeted, underlining the move as welcome news for Iraq’s Kurds.
McGurk’s departure also drew similar sighs of relief from many Shia and Sunni commentators who have blamed him for interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs, including in attempts to install US-favoured political leaders in key government positions.
However, the sudden departure of McGurk is likely to increase the growing disarray in Washington’s troubled strategy in Iraq in view of the mess it has made since its invasion of the country in 2003.
The US media reported that McGurk had submitted his resignation on 22 December after US president Donald Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria, effective on 31 December. His resignation came two days after James Mattis quit as US defense secretary, pointing to differences with Trump over Syria.
“The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of the policy that was articulated to us,” McGurk was quoted as writing in an email published by several media outlets. “It left our Coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered.”
McGurk was in the region for talks with America’s Kurdish allies when Trump announced his decision to pull US troops out of Syria. Syria’s Kurds fear attacks by Turkey if the around 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria are withdrawn. The Iraqi Kurds have always favoured a long-term American military presence in the country.
In his resignation email McGurk wrote that “I worked this week to help manage some of the fallout but – as many of you heard in my meetings and phone calls – I ultimately concluded that I could not carry out these new instructions and maintain my integrity.”
McGurk told reporters on 11 December that he thought it was “fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the [so-called IS] caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”
As special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat IS since 2015, McGurk was one of the few appointees made by former US president Barack Obama to stay on under Trump. He also served at the US Embassy in Baghdad under former president George W Bush.
McGurk did not discuss his future, but Stanford University in the US announced on 2 January that he would be joining its staff as a lecturer. The University said McGurk would work in the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies.
On Thursday, the US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also announced that McGurk would be joining it as a non-resident senior fellow in its Middle East Programme.
McGurk has received acclaim from many of his former colleagues in the US state department, who have described him as “tirelessly dedicated” and respected by stakeholders in Iraq and Syria. Some in the US media have also praised McGurk for commanding expertise “which he was sought for and was deferred to within the US government.”
A former US Supreme Court clerk, McGurk started work in Iraq under Bush when he joined the US national security staff at America’s Baghdad Embassy. He then moved to Baghdad to be senior adviser to the US ambassador in Iraq.
He carved out his diplomatic experience during this period and was a chief architect of the Bush administration policy in Iraq. He also played a senior role in negotiating the 2011 US troop withdrawal from the country.
McGurk was nominated in 2012 to serve as Obama’s ambassador to Iraq, but his appointment was withdrawn after media reports on a series of leaked emails sent from his official state department account described an intimate relationship with a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
The reporter, Gina Chon, was later accused of sharing articles with McGurk before publication, and she was forced to resign from the newspaper. McGurk and Chon married in 2012.
Following this controversy, McGurk was appointed to a new, non-confirmable post as the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran. He was named deputy special presidential envoy to the International Coalition to fight IS after the terrorist groups seized large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.
Most of the praise for McGurk has come as a result of his involvement at high levels in the US government and diplomatic circles, and he has been seen as a trusted presence in the coalition since his appointment as envoy by Obama.
But McGurk’s most sensitive diplomatic missions over the last decade have probably been in Iraq, including negotiations with US partners and adversaries to form successive Iraqi governments.
In 2014, McGurk led the pressure from Washington to force then Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki to give up his bid for a third term in office and to put his weight behind Haider Al-Abadi’s bid for the premiership.
McGurk’s most recent assignment was to help form a new Iraqi government after indecisive elections in May last year. The Iraqi media reported that McGurk was clearly rooting for a second term for Al-Abadi.
McGurk’s diplomacy aimed primarily at countering similar efforts by Iran’s point man in Iraq, Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who pushed high-level Iraqi politicians to deny Al-Abadi a second term.
A focus on McGurk’s tenure in Iraq, however, reveals that the praise heaped on him by his colleagues has tended to obscure the reality behind his mission in the beleaguered nation.
In 2017, McGurk infuriated the Iraqi Kurds when he tried to stop the autonomous Kurdistan Region government from holding an independence referendum.
Iraqi columnist Mushriq Abbas accused McGurk of engaging in a race with Suleimani to win Iraqi politicians to his side in a rivalry which many Iraqis blame for the country’s political impasse.
Writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper, Abbas said McGurk was largely responsible for the security deterioration that had preceded the fall of Sunni cities in Iraq to IS terrorists in summer 2014.
Abbas quoted Iraqi politicians as saying that McGurk had frequently claimed that he was acting on behalf of the US president when he was in fact “expressing his personal and non-objective opinions”.
After the tributes from his sympathisers die down, McGurk will be remembered for recklessly expanding, and covering up, his country’s wars.
At times, his involvement at high levels in US government circles was reminiscent of that of US diplomat Paul Bremer who ran Iraq’s occupation after the 2003 US-led invasion and who is seen by Iraqis as largely responsible for their country’s destruction.
In the midst of McGurk resignation controversy even his boss overlooked his role in one of the crucial areas of US foreign policy which surrounds the Trump presidency.
Before his departure, McGurk was thought to be a contender for a senior post in the state department or the White House. Now he is expected to join the Iraq experts community, composed mostly of former US diplomats and know-it-all analysts.
Like Bremer, he is also expected to write a memoir of his time in Iraq, scorning the Iraqi politicians whom he used to deal with behind closed doors in Baghdad during hammer-and-tongs negotiations and revealing more of their hidden characters.
The state department said on 4 December that US Syria point man James Jeffrey would replace McGurk as the US envoy to the International Coalition against IS.
It is not clear, however, if Jeffrey, who has served as US ambassador in Baghdad, will lead the US relations with Iraq amid the confusion about Trump’s strategy and intentions.
If he does, Jeffrey will likely have to deal with the legacy of McGurk and shore up an alliance strained by his disastrous meddling in Iraq’s affairs that Iraq itself may not be able to escape.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: America’s last viceroy in Iraq