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Professor's Candid Insights After Year in Iraq

Pomona College Politics Professor Mietek Boduszynski recently completed a one-year term of service with the U.S. State Department in the hot spot of Iraq. For his work, he received the 2016 U.S. State Department Superior Honor Award, one of the most prestigious honors given in the Foreign Service.
Boduszynski is no stranger to the life of a diplomat. Before his recent role as political counselor to the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah, southern Iraq, he was stationed in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attacks, and has served stints at U.S. embassies in Albania, Kosovo, Japan and Egypt as well. Including English, he is fluent in seven languages ranging from Arabic to Japanese, Albanian to French.
At Pomona, he is teaching a course on U.S. foreign policy and another one titled “The U.S. and Iraq,” bringing his firsthand experience into the classroom and offering his perspective on past and current events. Looking at the state of the world, Iraq is an issue that is not going away for the U.S. anytime soon, he says.
“We can’t seem to shake ourselves of Iraq,” he says.
He notes that hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel have rotated through Iraq on deployments, with 5,000 to 6,000 of them killed and tens of thousands suffering from physical injuries and psychological trauma. As a result of the violence that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion, 140,000 Iraqis have died. Trillions of dollars have been spent by the U.S. in Iraq. Now the country and a U.S.-led coalition are in the thick of battle against the Islamic State.
“We’re affecting each other, Iraqis and Americans…it’s important for me to remind my students of how big Iraq has been for us and how many American and Iraqi lives have been directly affected by U.S. involvement there. This is not to mention the mind-boggling economic costs, but also the benefits to military contractors and other private sector businesses that have worked in Iraq.”
There are so many questions for students and Americans more broadly to consider, he says, among them, what do we owe Iraq, in an ethical sense? Do we have to be there forever? Is it in our national interest?
Those were questions Boduszynski grappled with daily during his service over the last year. From his on-the-ground perspective, Boduszynski found the situation in Iraq to be  “chronically dysfunctional.” The weakness of the Shia-led government is one reason why, he says, and that explains why the Islamic State was able to conquer territory so quickly.
The battle against ISIS, Boduszynski notes, comes in the wake of 13 years of poor governance and corruption: these are the real reasons for the country’s broken state. He cites the inadequate provision of electricity and clean water to people, corruption, ongoing sectarian conflict, and the more recent drastic drop in oil revenue. While the U.S. certainly contributed to these issues due to inadequate post-invasion planning, ultimately Iraqi elites need to take responsibility for massive failures as well, he says.
Boduszynski says that poor governance in Iraq, which in theory is a middle-income country, makes it look like a developing country.
“In the south, where I lived, the infrastructure is crumbling. There’s open sewage. I mean, if you go there you would never believe how rich Iraq is in terms of its natural resources. You would think that you’re in a very, very poor place, …with basically large numbers of people who live in abject poverty even as they live literally on top of one of the largest reserves of oil in the world,” he says.
In Basrah, mornings started with Boduszynski meeting with his local Iraqi staff, followed by a senior staff meeting with the Consul General, the senior U.S. representative in southern Iraq, and his fellow section heads (Boduszynski headed the political section). Together they would discuss internal issues and Boduszynski would brief the consul general on the most recent political developments in the south.
“That could be anything from describing the most recent tribal conflicts, and unfortunately, sadly and occasionally, an Islamic State attack, to party politics, militia issues, human rights, the state of minorities and women, or events such as a group of Qatari hunters being kidnapped by militias,” he says.
After that he would head out to meet Iraqis: politicians, religious figures and civil society leaders to build relationships and gather accurate information and views so that policymakers in Washington, D.C. could better understand the situation “on the ground.” For instance, he wrote a number of cables explaining why southern Shia believe that the U.S. is secretly supporting the Islamic State. To understand the southern Shia Iraqi mentality, you actually have to go out and talk to people, Boduszynski says.
“Why do Iraqis not trust U.S. motives? There is a trust deficit that goes back further than the 2003 invasion—and it’s important that decision-makers in Washington understand that story.”
Heading out for meeting Iraqi leaders was no easy task. Security considerations were topmost for fear of a U.S. diplomat getting hurt and every move off the compound had to be justified on paper, Boduszynski says. What was required was a package of dozens of bodyguards, armored SUVs and an advance team at the meeting venue.
“It wasn’t a low-key, discrete or spontaneous arrival,” he says. “If I wanted so much as to go use the toilet then the security detail would accompany me, so there wasn’t very much privacy involved,” he laughs.
Meetings were short for safety reasons.
The remainder of Boduszynski’s days were spent communicating and coordinating with Baghdad and Washington, writing cables, and consuming lots of information: press, social media, and intel.
Given all he’s seen, does Iraq have a future? Boduszynski says he sees a “generational project of reconfiguring and reconsolidating the Iraqi state.” He is confident ISIS will be defeated.
“But the issues that led to the Islamic State, Sunni marginalization, poor governance and poor prospects for young people in these scenarios, that’s still going to be there. So there’s still going be a possibility of some sort of ‘ISIS junior’ to emerge,” he says.
Boduszynski points out that however the U.S. presidential election turns out, America will still be militarily engaged in Iraq. In his courses, one analogy he uses is that the U.S. and Iraq are trapped in a bad marriage.
“In some countries people get divorced to get out of a bad marriage like this, but for various reasons it’s hard to get another apartment so they continue living together because they have no choice. And maybe one person sleeps on the couch and someone sleeps in the bedroom — but it’s not a happy arrangement, right? Yet they’re kind of stuck together because of the past. The U.S., despite withdrawing militarily in 2011, is now back fighting the Islamic State and in many ways is stuck with Iraq, and that’s partly of its own doing,” he says.
This fixation as extraordinary – that a modestly sized country with a middle-income economy continues to loom so large for U.S. policy even as threats like North Korea are arguably greater and heightened engagement on other issues—such as climate change—may be more beneficial to Americans and humanity at large, he says.
He wants to leave with his students a reminder that’s been inscribed on his own consciousness — the fact that Iraq is not just an object, he says.
“It’s not just this abstract place where American snipers shoot at terrorists or presidential candidates fight over who messed it up more. It’s a real place with real people who try to live their lives despite the problems that they have. The Iraqis I met and worked with were wonderful, warm, hospitable people. And, if we start thinking of Iraq as a real place with real people — that’s not a policy solution, but it at least changes our way of thinking.”

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