- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2012

President Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Iraq impressed Republican senators in a confirmation hearing this week, but his key critic, Sen. John McCain, remains skeptical of his ability to handle America’s biggest and most-expensive embassy.

Brett McGurk, a 39-year-old lawyer and former senior adviser on Iraq for Mr. Obama and former President George W. Bush, has never been an ambassador but has served all five U.S. envoys to Iraq since U.S.-led forces overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

At the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sens. James E. Risch of Idaho and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana seemed impressed by Mr. McGurk’s answers to their questions about the cost and size of the embassy.

“I don’t think anyone can question your knowledge and understanding of what’s happened in Iraq,” Mr. Risch said.

Mr. Risch, a former governor, noted that the embassy has a larger budget than Idaho. The United States spent $6.5 billion on the embassy last year, and has budgeted $4 billion for this year. The embassy has a staff of 16,000, mostly contractors.

Mr. Lugar said the embassy is “very insecure” now that U.S. combat troops have left Iraq.

“It is so huge,” he said of the diplomatic mission.

Mr. McGurk said he endorsed State Department plans to cut the size of the staff by 25 percent. “Quite frankly, our presence in Iraq right now is too large,” he said.

Mr. McCain, however, has criticized Mr. McGurk, citing “grave concerns” about his “qualifications and his positions on issues.”

“He’s not my choice,” the Arizona Republican told reporters earlier this week.

Although he is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. McCain commands considerable clout in the Senate as the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

He chastised Mr. McGurk for failing to reach a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow some U.S. troops to stay in Iraq past 2011. Mr. McGurk led talks with Mr. Maliki, but the Obama administration refused Mr. Maliki’s demand that U.S. troops be subject to Iraqi law.

Some observers on Capitol Hill suspect Mr. McCain might try to block full Senate confirmation of Mr. McGurk’s nomination.

In his testimony, Mr. McGurk warned of a “deep” divide between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority. The rival Muslim sects “fear and distrust” each other, and “political discourse” is dominated by “score-settling” from earlier conflicts, he said.

‘RULED BY THE LAWLESS’

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee denounced Russia for “high-level corruption,” as her panel passed a bill to punish Russians responsible for the death of a lawyer investigating Kremlin graft.

“The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican.

“Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human-rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless.”

The committee approved a bill named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian police custody in 2009. The bill would impose sanctions on those responsible for his death.

The bill is expected to win House approval, but a companion measure in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, faces opposition.

Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, has not brought it to a committee vote. The White House also opposes the measure because it could create problems for its efforts to improve relations with Russia.

Opposition to the bills also is coming from private Russian sources.

Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow, held a panel discussion in Washington this week to rally opponents.

“There is reason to suspect that the Magnitsky bill is not so much to do with punishing his tormentors as with poking the [Russian] bear, or more precisely, Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye,” he said.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.