5 Questions with Ambassador James F. Jeffrey on ISIS and Iraq


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical. The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week we spoke with Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ambassador Jeffrey has served as our envoy to Ankara (2008-2010) and Baghdad (2010-2012), where he previously served as chargé d’affaires and deputy chief of mission. Ambassador Jeffrey also served as assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, working closely on Iran-related issues. He is also a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army.


1.  Ambassador Jeffrey, thanks so much for doing this. You served as America’s Ambassador in Baghdad at a crucial time that witnessed the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq, a process that ended in December 2011. At that time, Iraq was comparatively calm. How did we get from there to here?

Two major and one secondary reason.  First, the construct we (and many Iraqis) struggled and fought for was based on a western concept of individual rights/rule of law/democracy based constitutional system supplanting ethnic/religious identity and winner take all rule.  While Prime Minister Maliki with his power lust, paranoia, hatred of diversity, corruption and micro-managing was particularly troubling, most of the other Kurdish, Shia and Sunni leaders, supported by their “flocks,” did not see things all that differently.  The result was limited attachment to the Iraqi state, by Sunnis, Kurds and soldiers.  Second was the situation in Syria.  The United States for the first time since the 1980s allowed a regional Near East crisis to degenerate without any significant role inadvertently helping give birth to a truly lethal Al Qaeda offshoot.  It was that movement that gained a foothold in Iraq in the past year.  Finally, failure of the Iraqi parties to allow a limited U.S. military presence to operate post 2011 undermined our ability to provide military training as well as the deep intelligence and air support so badly needed now.

2.  How can American power be applied to mitigate the situation and to what end? Should recent events drive the President to fundamentally reassess his policies and approaches in the Middle East?

The United States faces a triage.  If ISIS is able to cut off and besiege Baghdad and other larger Shia cities in the days ahead, the U.S. must use air power and all sorts of other emergency assistance to stave off a collapse of the state or a major Iranian intervention.

At the next level there must be a strategy to prevent a permanent ISIS presence in parts of Iraq and Syria.  Absent a U.S. ground invasion which President Obama has correctly ruled out, this will require sophisticated U.S. diplomatic and political steps to stand up local formations that can take on terrorists supported by U.S. assistance, air power and training, along with support from regional allies. To this end, the Baghdad government would have to become much more inclusive.

At the third level, from Pakistan to Mali, it’s now obvious that within the Sunni Middle East when authority erodes, terrorists with an Al Qaeda philosophy will spring up and gain traction. Attempting to stem this by imposing Western institutions and ideals has failed miserably. This is a profoundly troubling phenomenon.

3.  Iran is among the countries you know well. It’s been interesting to hear whispers that Iran might consider working with the United States to combat the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Is this speculation serious? And how would this tie in with the Syrian civil war and ongoing nuclear negotiations?

While our interests in Iraq momentarily coincide (maintaining unity, fighting Al Qaeda) our larger interests do not, be it in Syria, or cooperation with our Israeli, Turkish and Sunni Arab partners, or in trying to win over Sunnis in ISIS dominated areas  Too close a US approach to Iran would be fatal.

4.  Turkey’s role in all this is very complex at first glance. It really is an interesting balancing act. How might the deteriorating situation in Iraq fit together with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition, develop and maintain strong energy-based ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, and also keep friendly relations with Baghdad and Tehran?

Turkey has seen from Syria to Iraq the limits of its “go alone” foreign policy focused on Sunni religious allies and the Kurds. Its relations with almost every state in the region have deteriorated.  Given Turkey’s economic and military strength, relative stability and potential regional significance, this requires serious thought and coordination in Ankara and Washington.

5.  In all your diplomatic adventures over the course of a distinguished career, what was your most amusing encounter over drinks? Public piety aside, my understanding is alcohol is pervasive in Middle Eastern officialdom.

Being told repeatedly that America is the reason for every Middle Eastern problem, that it should immediately get out of the region, but that, just maybe, it could fix just this, or that, little problem first (the list is endless).


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Edward McNamara