By ARI WEIL —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – A year ago, professor Mietek Boduszynski was living in a shipping container in southern Iraq, enduring heat of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Today he sits in his air-conditioned office at Pomona College in this southern California town, surrounded by books and world maps. Returned from a year as the political section chief in the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah, he slowly sips his morning espresso and reflects on his experience.
“I’ll miss some things about the Foreign Service,” Boduszynski says. “Claremont is a bubble, and you always want to be in the center of the action.”
That desire to be in the middle of things is what drew Boduszynski back into government service. He worked as a diplomat for nine years before retiring and becoming a college professor in 2013. But a State Department grace period for returning to work and available postings in Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East convinced him to return to diplomatic life after only two years in academia.
After receiving training in Iraqi dialect, history, and culture for six weeks in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2015, Boduszynski arrived in Iraq in August and began his year-long assignment at the consulate.
Basrah is located in the “Shia heartland” of southern Iraq, which is home to the Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shia militia that he says is one of the most effective at fighting ISIS. In early 2015, the Washington Post reported an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 militiamen make up the PMF.
Thus after a year of the U.S. fighting ISIS, Boduszynski was surprised to find that many Iraqis in the area were not confident that the U.S. was on their side. He points to a “trust deficit” in southern Iraq, where Shia communities even believe that the U.S. is supporting ISIS.
“Diplomacy is building relationships and trust,” says Boduszynski. Thus, one of his primary goals was to alert the State Department in Washington, DC of the existence of this mistrust. He then reached out to local community organizations and civil society leaders to explain that the U.S. was in fact working to defeat ISIS and protect the Shia from atrocities committed by the Sunni-backed terrorist organization.
For the first nine years of his diplomatic career, Boduszynski served as a public diplomacy officer, focusing on outreach to the local populace. His career took him all over the world, with postings including Japan, Egypt, Albania, Kosovo and Libya. For his latest assignment, he chose to return to the Middle East as a political officer after specializing in the region in his recent academic research.
While he is happy with what he was able to accomplish in his short stay of service in Iraq, Boduszynski worries about the future.
“There are not a lot of people thinking about what’s next,” he says. With an increasing U.S. troop presence and a near-singular focus on defeating ISIS, Boduszynski remains concerned that the U.S. is leaving behind key questions of how Iraq will govern itself when the conflict subsides.
Nevertheless, as he returns to life as an academic in sunny Southern California, Boduszynski still looks fondly on his year in the middle of the action, or as he says, “living in a country when it’s the focus of U.S. foreign policy.”
(Written by Ari Weil; Sept. 25, 2016)