Brett McGurk: A Hero of Our Time

The United States has learned some hard lessons in the Middle East. But can the same be said of the man who helped shape U.S. policy there across four presidencies?

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Brett McGurk: A Hero of Our Time
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson/Newlines

Every generation of American diplomats has a figure who becomes the face of the era in foreign policy, a Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, or Richard Holbrooke. The years of pain and sorrow otherwise known as the Forever Wars may have found their own symbol in Brett McGurk. President Joe Biden has made McGurk his “coordinator” for the Middle East on the National Security Council, a bland title that does not measure the influence of this position at the heart of American power. Biden is merely the fourth president McGurk has served under, having risen steadily through successive administrations, Republican and Democratic: Bush, Obama, and Trump.

Across the span of those years, the United States has declared victory in Iraq many times only to return to fight the same war, or different versions of it, over and over again. Victory in Iraq always seems to contain the seeds of defeat. The charge against McGurk — and the U.S. — during this period is one of hubris, of trying to run Iraq without ever really understanding the place or its peoples, to catastrophic effect in the Middle East.

McGurk has his admirers. They include his former boss in the Baghdad embassy, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “He’s not about showcasing Brett McGurk. It’s just, ‘Get the job done,’ which is why he’s been sought after by radically different administrations.” Jonathan Winer, who had an office next door to McGurk’s in the State Department, said McGurk had “devoted his life” to understanding terrorism — and Iraq — to better serve the U.S. national interest. McGurk himself (politely) refused to speak to me for this piece, saying, quite reasonably, that he was busy starting his new job. But for a briefcase-wielding federal bureaucrat, McGurk inspires fierce passions. His accusers say his success comes not of brilliance in the Middle East but of brilliance in Washington, D.C. — he was the ultimate Beltway operator, walking away from every disaster, “failing upwards.”

The critics — and I spoke to almost a dozen prominent ones — remain anonymous here. Some, no doubt, wanted to use the conventions of “background” to wound without leaving fingerprints; others seemed genuinely fearful about the consequences of criticizing a tough operator known to be careful of his image; many simply didn’t want a public row with a former colleague. A senior Western diplomat who served in Baghdad told me that McGurk had been an absolute disaster for Iraq. “He is a consummate operator in Washington, but I saw no sign that he was interested in Iraqis or Iraq as a place full of real people. It was simply a bureaucratic and political challenge for him.” One critic who was in Baghdad with McGurk called him Machiavelli reincarnated. “It’s intellect plus ambition plus the utter ruthlessness to rise no matter the cost.”

McGurk arrived in the Green Zone in 2004 as a legal adviser, aged 30. He spoke no Arabic and knew little to nothing of Iraq’s history and culture. Some of the professional foreign service officers there immediately categorized him as “a strap-hanger” — what the military call noncombatants riding in the back of the chopper. At the time, there were a lot of fresh-faced young men in chinos and button-down shirts doing six months in Iraq on their way to becoming deputy assistant to someone in Washington. McGurk seemed typical of this breed of political appointee, but he stayed in Iraq longer than most, beginning the long climb from staffer to principal.

A U.S. diplomat who was in the embassy when McGurk arrived found his steady advance astonishing. “Brett only meets people who speak English. … There are like four people in the government who speak English. And somehow he’s now the person who should decide the fate of Iraq? How did this happen?”

Even those who didn’t like McGurk had to admit that he had a formidable intellect — and was a hard worker. He was also a gifted writer, no surprise as he had clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. His rise mirrored that of an Iraqi politician named Nouri al-Maliki, one careerist helping the other. That is McGurk’s tragedy — and Iraq’s.

In 2006, al-Maliki — Abu Isra to those who knew him — was an obscure member of the Iraqi Parliament begging for Green Zone passes from American officials. He was not obviously corrupt and was ready to put in 16-hour days, and so the U.S. backed him to become prime minister. But al-Maliki turned out to be a hard-faced Shiite nationalist: “sectarian, intolerant, ideologically Islamist and a paranoid politician,” in the words of one Western official who dealt with him. “If you’re working 16 hours a day, that’s not a virtue in the Middle East. It means you’re working to conspire against everybody else 16 hours a day.”

Abu Isra set about excluding Sunni opponents from power and turning the security forces into his own praetorian guard. Iraq became, once again, a place of secret prisons and torture. McGurk’s critics say his lack of Arabic meant he missed the vicious, sectarian undertones of what al-Maliki was saying in meetings right from the start. Translators censored or failed to keep up. Like many Americans in Iraq, McGurk was deaf to what was happening around him.

Al-Maliki was the consequence of two mistakes by the U.S. How much McGurk had to do with them remains in dispute. The first mistake was the “80 Percent Solution” for ruling Iraq. The Sunni Arabs were mounting a bloody insurgency, but they were just 20% of the population. The theory was that you could run Iraq with the Kurds and the Shiites. The second error was to identify the Shiites with hardline, religious parties backed by Iran. Al-Maliki, a member of the religious Da’wa Party, was the beneficiary of this.

The U.S. diplomat who was in Baghdad with McGurk remembers him asking a junior member of staff to type out a cable to Washington. “He decides to write the strategy for Iraq moving forward. This is after he talks to like three people in the government who speak English. And it’s completely off base, it’s hogwash: Make al-Maliki a dictator and, you know, Iraq in the rearview mirror.”

McGurk was “the Maliki whisperer,” as newspaper profiles put it — but as events turned out, it wasn’t clear who was “whispering” to whom. The former senior Western diplomat in Baghdad said there was ample evidence that al-Maliki was “poison,” but the U.S. believed that a “Shia tough guy” was needed to run Iraq. “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. This narrative pervaded the Washington debate, and McGurk was at the heart of it. … McGurk convinced everybody. You will find huge numbers of Iraqis who had anything to do with Americans hate McGurk.”

But al-Maliki was not America’s son of a bitch. Two sources told me his aides dismissed McGurk as a “useful idiot.” They joked that he was not America’s man in Baghdad but Da’wa’s in Washington. These same aides later allegedly called the U.S. military commander, Lloyd Austin, now Biden’s defense secretary, a “coward” for his (supposedly) obsequious attitude toward Abu Isra. Such extraordinary insults stemmed from the confidence al-Maliki had in the unwavering support of the White House. Crocker, the former U.S. envoy to Iraq, told me that in 2008, he and McGurk tried to get President George W. Bush to drop al-Maliki but were told in no uncertain terms to think again. Under President Barack Obama, too, the policy was the same: “There is no alternative to Maliki.”

The U.S. even came together with Iran to save Abu Isra when he lost the 2010 election to a secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi. Allawi should have had the first chance to form a coalition but — after the votes had been counted — al-Maliki got the Iraqi supreme court to change the rules and horse trading began. Essentially, al-Maliki was being allowed to steal the election. Years later, McGurk told The Atlantic that he and other American officials had worked to find alternatives to al-Maliki but that “Maliki worked his ass off from day one and just collected seat after seat.”

Once again, there was “no alternative” to al-Maliki. One former senior U.S. official who worked with McGurk said: “Like every American operates overseas, you form relationships, and you get captured by those relationships. Al-Maliki was his guy. So he stayed with al-Maliki even when it was clear that al-Maliki was a serious human rights abuser who was ruthless and dangerous to the further development of his own country. Everybody in foreign policy makes these mistakes. Everybody. You wind up picking the people you’ve met, getting comfortable with them and then being stuck with whatever they’re doing on their own. You don’t know until it’s too late, and then you have to figure out how to manage it.”

Another former senior official who knows McGurk was less forgiving. He thought his influence over the Obama administration’s Iraq policy had helped to give al-Maliki another four years in power. “Those years were disastrous” — Iraq started to return to civil war; al Qaeda in Iraq reemerged and began to evolve into the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.

At several moments in al-Maliki’s premiership, Iraq’s government would probably have collapsed — the country itself might have ceased to exist — without the U.S. presence in Iraq. The U.S. had all the power, but somehow they were the supplicants at Abu Isra’s court. In 2011, the issue was once again whether U.S. troops would stay. And once again, the U.S. was begging the Iraqis to grant permission for something that was supposedly happening at their request.

A participant in the talks told me: “McGurk had persuaded himself that he and Maliki had a unique relationship and that they could work something out. This was complete and utter … folly.”

Al-Maliki did do a deal — with Iran. He would get the U.S. out, and Iran would support him as the leader of Iraq’s Shiites. Al-Maliki’s government duly told U.S. forces to leave. Obama declared that he had fulfilled a campaign promise (already a foregone conclusion by the time he came into office) to bring the troops home, their job done. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” In truth, it was a defeat for the U.S.

McGurk was a private citizen out of Iraq for some of these events. In 2012, he was to be the next U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, but stories about his personal life killed the nomination. He’d had an affair, and, with maliciously impeccable timing, someone leaked emails between him and the woman concerned, an American reporter in Baghdad. It seems quaint that that misdeed should be a reason to resign rather than enabling al-Maliki, a ruthless sectarian whose misrule led to the rise of ISIS.

ISIS would have existed without al-Maliki, but he made a bad situation worse. The caliphate was established with the conquest of Mosul, which happened in part because al-Maliki had sacked his generals and replaced them with incompetent cronies chosen for their loyalty. Baghdad itself was at risk of falling to the jihadists, the city waiting nervously for “zero hour.” The U.S. military was back in Iraq and — despite his record as al-Maliki’s backer and the ignominious withdrawal of his nomination to be ambassador — so was McGurk, brought in to help coordinate the struggle against ISIS.

McGurk pursued that mission with the single-mindedness for which he had become known. One former diplomat in the region remembers McGurk “ranting” at a group of Iraqi officials, “threatening them with all sorts of things.” “He’s a bully, he … alienated people with these tactics.” But this was exactly why McGurk was appreciated in Washington — “just get the job done.” It was a military campaign without much care for the politics around it. One former senior U.S. official thought that McGurk pursued policies that “deepened the alienation of Sunni communities.” The war against ISIS was eventually won but only after flattening Sunni cities from Mosul to Raqqah, with countless civilians dead. This is the soil from which the next Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will spring.

McGurk left his job as ISIS czar in what was widely praised as an honorable resignation from the madhouse of the Trump administration; he was another MAGA martyr. But in his support for the Kurds, he had pitted the U.S. against Turkey. The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria — U.S. forces scuttling out of the way — was an event he helped put in motion; empowering the Syrian Kurds against a NATO ally was always going to lead to a confrontation, no matter who was in the White House. And in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq, the U.S. military became the air wing for Shiite militias that had once happily killed American troops with roadside bombs — a brutal irony that was a lesson in the consequences of hubris. Iran had the money to support these militias because sanctions had been lifted as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal was called. It was claimed by President Donald Trump, among others, that McGurk was the official who sent “pallets of cash” to the Iranians, $400 million in exchange for American hostages.

Whatever the truth of that, Iran became much richer as a result of the nuclear agreement and used the money to expand its intelligence services and the Quds Force, as well as for missile development, part of a quest for regional hegemony. Obama and then-Vice President Biden had hoped that signing the nuclear deal would moderate the Iranian regime. Instead, the opposite happened.

Many people expected the Biden administration to try to get a deal with Iran at all costs. After all, the team now in charge of U.S. foreign policy is the same as before: Biden, Antony Blinken, Austin, and of course McGurk. But Biden has not rushed to do a deal, confounding expectations. Perhaps the Middle East is a different place from what it was four years ago. Or perhaps this is the benefit of experience.

If McGurk’s record is one of failure as much as success, he was in good company. The former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates famously wrote that Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” When McGurk was at State and dealing with Iran, he was often seen with David Fromkin’s epic, “A Peace to End All Peace,” about how the fall of the Ottoman and British empires created today’s Middle East. “Decisions, by all accounts … were made with little knowledge of, or concern for, the lands and peoples about which and whom the decisions were being made,” Fromkin wrote. That could easily serve as America’s epitaph in the Middle East — perhaps McGurk’s, too.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq cost $2 trillion, almost 4,500 American dead, and more than 32,000 wounded — but the Iraqis may have lost half a million people; no one knows the true figure. America’s best and brightest came to Baghdad to create a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq — and failed utterly and completely. Even for the hardheaded foreign policy realists in Washington, the U.S. failed to create a reliable client state, instead leaving Iran to dictate events in Iraq.

Many of those who served under the U.S. flag in Iraq are haunted by the experience. McGurk probably spent more time than any senior official did in Baghdad. He could have gone off to make money at a fancy law firm at any time, but he stayed. (Short intervals at Harvard, the Hoover Institute, and MSNBC did not keep him from public service for any length of time.) McGurk’s critics, who spoke to me for this piece, don’t believe that diplomatic experience is, like a prison sentence, measured simply in time served. If the U.S. is not to keep making the same mistakes in the Middle East, the question is: What did Brett McGurk learn in Iraq?

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