The Foreign Service Journal - March 2014 - page 57

MARCH 2014
Hope Meets Reality
Talking to Strangers: The Struggle to
Rebuild Iraq’s ForeignMinistry
Ghassan Muhsin Hussein and David Dun-
ford, Southwestern College Academic Press,
2013, $18.95, paperback, 212 pages.
Reviewed by Jack R. Binns
It is difficult to think of an event in the
past 20 years that has been as thoroughly
examined, probed and critiqued as
the George W. Bush administration’s
ill-conceived and poorly executed Iraq
intervention, which took place 11 years
ago this month. Yet there remain untilled
fields that yield new perspectives and use-
ful insights, and this book is one.
As its title,
Talking to Strangers: The
Struggle to Rebuild Iraq’s Foreign Minis-
, indicates, the book’s subject matter
has considerable intrinsic value. But
because it combines the viewpoints of two
experienced diplomats, an Iraqi and an
American, it offers a unique, ground-level
perspective on diplomacy.
The task on which Iraqi Ambassador
Ghassan Muhsin Hussein (no relation to
SaddamHussein) and U.S. Ambassador
David Dunford collaborated after the
U.S. invasion was daunting but relatively
straightforward, at least on paper: rebuild-
ing the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. Working
under the aegis of the U.S. Office of Recon-
struction and Humanitarian Assistance,
Hussein and Dunford were largely suc-
cessful, at least initially.
The reconstituted ministry quickly
gained control of the country’s 31 embas-
sies and overseas assets, purged Saddam
Hussein’s remaining loyalists, re-estab-
lished key bilateral relationships and
regained international recognition. And it
did all this despite dysfunctional bureau-
cracy (think an amalgam of Franz Kafka
and Joseph Heller), cultural ignorance and
an escalating security threat.
In his account, Amb.
Hussein focuses on the
internal challenges the
Iraqis faced, not all of
which were caused by the
war. He helpfully explains
how the ministry had
operated before the U.S.
invasion, laying out
the central roles of the
security apparatus and
Ba’ath Party oversight.
Amb. Dunford’s portions of the book
recount his own daily bureaucratic, logis-
tical and security struggles. An experi-
enced Middle East hand, he was sensitive
to the cross-cultural factors that colored
dealings with Iraqis, but found the U.S.
military/civilian cultural conflicts nearly
impossible to overcome. In particular, he
describes the first leader of the Office of
Reconstruction and Iraqi Humanitarian
Assistance, retired General Jay Garner, as
well-meaning but lacking useful guidance.
Apparently out of his depth, Garner
lacked the authority to ensure adequate
support and security for his mostly civilian
staff. For that reason, most of the ORHA
civilian component greeted Garner’s
replacement in May 2003 by Ambassador
L. Paul Bremer with great relief.
Within weeks, however, those hopes
were dashed. Bremer abolished ORHA,
merging it with the newmultilateral Coali-
tion Provisional Authority, and issued a
draconian order expelling all senior mem-
bers of the Ba’ath Party from positions
within the Iraqi government.
Although exceptions could
be made, they were very rare,
so the effect of this dictum
was to strip the Iraqi govern-
ment of most of its experienced
civil servants. Amb. Hussein,
who had spurned enticements
to join the party, retained his
post, but many of his colleagues
were removed even though they
lacked any meaningful attach-
ment to Saddam’s regime.
Both authors agree that the de-
Ba’athification order was a critical error.
Coupled with general ignorance of the
deep cultural differences between Iraqi
and American societies, it instantly made
the process of normalizing governmental
functions far more difficult. Citing their
early success at the foreign ministry,
Hussein and Dunford make a persuasive
case that the overall outcome in Iraq could
have been far more positive and produc-
tive had the removal of government offi-
cials been more thoughtful and nuanced.
I should note that the book is not an
easy read, especially for those unfamiliar
with U.S. governmental acronyms. The
authors’ compilation of such terms is,
unfortunately, incomplete, leaving the
reader in a quandary more than once.
Similarly, the cast of characters (often only
identified by first names) is huge and, at
times, overwhelming. Again, the table of
dramatis personae is incomplete even
though it runs to 150 people.
On the whole, however, anyone
interested in the continuing evolution of
Iraq will find
Talking to Strangers
full of
insights. The book is also a most valuable
addition to the literature about working-
level diplomacy and governance.
Jack R. Binns, a retired Senior Foreign Service
officer, spent his 25-year diplomatic career
Hussein and Dunford’s
fruitful collaboration
gives the reader a unique,
ground-level perspective on
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