On Sept. 28, the State Department announced that it would close the U.S. consulate in Basra, Iraq, in the face of alleged Iranian attacks. In a statement the same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared:
"Threats to our personnel and facilities in Iraq from the Government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and from militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani have increased over the past several weeks. There have been repeated incidents of indirect fire from elements of those militias directed at our Consulate General in Basrah [sic] and our Embassy in Baghdad, including within the past twenty-four hours. I have advised the Government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias. I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks."
If Pompeo truly wants to hold Iran responsible for its decadeslong campaign against diplomatic norms and security, then closing the U.S. consulate in Basra is the absolute worst choice he could make. Let’s put aside the fact that the U.S. consulate in Basra is located on the grounds of Basra International Airport, and so what the target of errant mortars was is unclear (none appears to have struck consulate grounds or property). Even if U.S. intelligence shows with certainty that Iranian-backed militias sought to target U.S personnel and property, shuttering the consulate is counterproductive because it conveys the idea that the United States will not hold firm in the face of terrorism or enemies.
Consider precedent: On Aug. 19, 2003, a suicide bomber struck the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, home of the United Nations assistance mission in Iraq. The bomber killed at least 22 people, including Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. special representative in Iraq and a favorite to be a future U.N. secretary-general. Then Secretary-General Kofi Annan responded by recalling most U.N. officials.
It was a decision more deadly than the Canal Hotel attack, because it sent the signal that anyone who disagreed with any United Nations agency on Iraq should simply attack its personnel in order to send the U.N. fleeing and void the policy decision. Former President Ronald Reagan’s decision to flee Beirut after the 1983 Iranian-sponsored attack on the Marine Barracks there inspired Osama bin Laden to attack the United States years later.
Pompeo now risks the same effect: Rather than rebuff Iranian terrorism, he may encourage it.
While the State Department maintains its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad and perhaps its largest consulate in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, it now has no presence south of Baghdad. Nor does the size of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad correlate to effectiveness; rather, it is among the State Department’s biggest boondoggles. There is little interaction between the diplomats and employees housed behind blast walls inside the compound and Iraq beyond. Reverberations could occur beyond Iraq: Pakistani radicals don’t like the U.S. presence in Pakistan? Launch a few mortars in the vicinity of the consulates in Karachi and Peshawar to try to get the Americans to flee.
The tragedy here is that most Iraqis, even those in Basra, do not particularly care for the Iranians, whom they find overbearing and arrogant. If the United States constantly underestimates the importance of occupation, the Iranians always run roughshod over the nationalism of others. Occupation is long since over; Iranian arrogance continues.
Meanwhile, Basrawis have welcomed Americans, even as they resented that the U.S. consulate sequestered itself in such an inaccessible locale. U.S. Consul-General Timmy Davis quickly garnered a reputation as a talented representative more willing than most to get out and about. Southern Iraqis wanted greater U.S. investment and involvement, something difficult with the consulate shuttered. In short, the closure of the consulate betrays Iraqis and the partnership which successive U.S. administrations have promised.
There are rumors in the State Department that Pompeo is using the supposed Iranian threat to cover what is essentially a financial decision. This would be wrongheaded, given how many other consulates exist that do little to bolster U.S. interests and could be trimmed: Consider Canada, where the United States not only maintains an embassy in Ottawa, but also consulates in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Quebec City, Halifax, and Winnipeg. Would U.S. interests truly be harmed if the latter three consulates were closed? Would any American or Canadian really notice? Within the Foreign Service, such posts are often reserved for those, who for family or other personal reasons, must remain closer to home. Human resources should never trump core strategic interests in determining the U.S. presence.
After a succession of weak or ineffective secretaries of State, Pompeo has an opportunity to be a breath of fresh air and right a bureaucracy which has long since lost sight of core U.S. interests and the importance of victory over, rather than compromise with, adversaries. Alas, embracing North Korea summit diplomacy and fleeing in the face of Iranian threats is not the way to make America great again.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.