'Diplomacy of incompetence' in Iraq
Is anyone in charge of Iraq's foreign policy, asks Salah Nasrawi
A string of diplomatic disputes, including an escalating crisis with Kuwait over the construction of a major sea port, have thrown up opportunities for Iraqis to debate their country's foreign policy amid mounting criticisms of what has been described as a "diplomacy of incompetence."
Many among Iraq's most powerful politicians, including prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, view the country's foreign ministry with suspicion, accusing members of the diplomatic corps of failing to foster Iraq's national interests and instead serving their own ethnic and sectarian affiliations.
However, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who has been the country's chief diplomat for some eight years, disagrees and blames rival Iraqi politicians for being behind Iraq's worsening relations with its neighbours.
As Iraq faces the possibility of increasing foreign intervention in the country, including the recent military incursions by Iran and Turkey, many Iraqis are now lambasting their government for its failed foreign policy.
Critics have noted that the Iraqi government has refrained from lodging complaints with the UN Security Council against Iran and Turkey, despite their repeated incursions into Iraq.
A key question now is whether Iraq still has a foreign policy worthy of the name, and, if so, who is in control of it.
The present Iraqi constitution, drafted after the fall of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, stipulates that the country's "federal authorities" will draw up the country's "sovereign foreign policy" and formulate its "national security" strategy.
Yet, successive governments since then have failed to develop a well-defined strategy for foreign relations, or to specify who in the federal authority, which includes the parliament, the presidency and the government, is responsible for foreign relations.
After its restructuring following the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime, Iraq's foreign ministry stated that its main objective was to end the country's isolation by overcoming the "legacy of mistrust and hostility" among its neighbours.
A policy note posted on the ministry's website states among its "responsibilities and challenges" the need to work to "protect Iraq's security, stabilise the country and preserve Iraq's territorial integrity."
However, many Iraqi politicians say the foreign ministry has failed to implement these goals.
Last week Maysoun Al-Damalouji, a member of the Iraqi parliament on the Sunni-backed Al-Iraqiya List, charged in a television interview with the Al-Baghdadia channel that the country's foreign policy is "weak and does not protect Iraq's national interests".
Another member or parliament, Wahda Al-Jumaili, accused the government's foreign policy of being "erroneous and confusing".
The parliament's foreign relations committee, constitutionally entitled to scrutinise government policy, has repeatedly complained that it is in the dark about what is going on inside the Foreign Ministry.
The committee said Foreign Minister Zebari had shunned opportunities to discuss the country's foreign affairs with members of his own diplomatic staff.
He recently told reporters that the committee should not "interfere in policy-making by the ministries, including the Foreign Ministry."
In July, Al-Maliki himself went public about his misgivings about the Foreign Ministry, calling for more "transparency" in Iraqi foreign policy and telling a meeting of Iraqi ambassadors that the country's "foreign policy should be clearly defined".
Iraq's foreign policy "should be controlled by the constitution, law and the state's interests," Al-Maliki said, complaining that Iraqi diplomats abroad sometimes "express policies that are different from those forged by the government".
They "should represent the government and not the political parties or sects or ethnicities" to which they belonged, he said.
Zebari, meanwhile, insists that his ministry's policies chime perfectly with Iraqi national goals. In a series of press interviews Zebari has defended his ministry as "working hard to introduce Iraq's shining face" to the world.
He accused rival Iraqi politicians of lacking diplomatic niceties, meddling in the embattled country's diplomacy and damaging its ties with foreign nations.
Nevertheless, many would agree that Iraq's foreign policy does seem to be in trouble and that this could reflect a lack of cohesion in government policies more generally, as well as conflicts among the country's rival political and ethnic groups.
The wrangling over Kuwait's construction of the Mubarak Great Port on Boubiyan Island across a narrow waterway with Iraq is only one case in point.
While many Iraqis, including ministers and legislators, say that the new port encroaches on Iraq's territorial waters, accusing Kuwait of attempting to choke Iraq's access to international shipping lanes, Zebari has said the opposite, holding that the port does not harm Iraq's interests.
On 29 May, Zebari told the cabinet in a letter that "the construction of the Great Mubarak Port will by no means suffocate Iraq economically or allow Kuwait to control its maritime trade because it will not affect traffic in the Khor Abdullah Canal."
The letter may have infuriated Al-Maliki, who promptly decided to take over the issue, instructing his office to handle it rather than the foreign ministry.
Last Tuesday, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted Yassin Majeed, a close aide to Al-Maliki, as saying that the Iraqi prime minister had threatened to fire Zebari "if he does not improve his ministry's performance."
In addition to accusations of mismanagement and a lack of inter-agency communication and coordination, critics say that the Foreign Ministry is plagued by corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
Iraqi media outlets thrive on reports of corruption inside the ministry and at Iraqi embassies abroad, the latter having acted as channels for hundreds of millions of dollars intended for rehabilitation work in Iraq.
Little has been done to investigate the allegations.
In August, Othman Al-Geheishi, a member of the Iraqi parliament's integrity committee, said that the committee would be investigating possible "financial and administrative fraud" at the ministry relating to $260 million spent on preparations for an Arab summit in Baghdad that was not in fact held.
The Foreign Ministry has a reputation for being one of the worst offenders in terms of allegations of governmental nepotism and cronyism.
Critics say that many of those sent to work in Iraq's 89 diplomatic missions abroad are either political appointees or are related to someone in the government.
Factors presumed to be related to holding diplomatic jobs, such as higher education, a career in public or academic service and political experience, have been sidestepped, critics say, in order to hire diplomats according to quotas based on sectarian and ethnic cliques.
If true, this could explain many of the problems experienced in managing Iraq's foreign policy.
Iraq's foreign policy also remains conditioned by geopolitical factors such as the country's location, sandwiched between the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, border problems and access to international waterways.
But domestic challenges, including political stalemate, instability and sectarianism, are also having significant consequences for national security and foreign policies.
As long as Iraq fails to forge an independent foreign policy that serves its national interests and not the agendas of its sometimes embattled ethnicities, the country will not receive the international respect it deserves.