WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq withdrew his name on Monday after Republican lawmakers questioned his suitability following revelations that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with a journalist who later became his wife.
Brett McGurk, a long-time Iraq expert who had served on the Bush administration’s National Security Council, wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he was withdrawing “with a heavy heart.”
“I believe it is in the best interests of the country, and our life together, to withdraw my nomination and serve in another capacity,” McGurk said in the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
McGurk’s withdrawal throws a fresh question mark over Washington’s uncertain relations with Iraq following the departure of U.S. forces last year.
While the embassy in Baghdad remains one of the biggest U.S. diplomatic facilities in the world, there are plans to trim the U.S. presence further as early hopes for close political and economic ties fade and Iraq’s Shi‘ite-led government draws closer to its powerful Shi‘ite neighbor Iran.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor praised McGurk’s “tireless and effective leadership in Iraq.”
“He served in two administrations, and his commitment to the national interest and to the mission was always clear,” Vietor said in an emailed statement.
“While we regret to see Brett withdraw his candidacy there is no doubt that he will be called on again to serve the country.”
McGurk’s withdrawal ended weeks of speculation after emails surfaced that appeared to show that he had a romantic affair with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon while both were stationed in Iraq.
The two have since married, and Chon has resigned from the Wall Street Journal.
But the emails drew criticism in Congress, where six of the nine Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Obama requesting a new choice to head the huge U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
In their letter to Obama, the senators wrote: “We believe the nominee lacks the leadership and management experience necessary to head America’s largest embassy, in one of the world’s most volatile regions.”
Their letter referred to “the public release of information detailing unprofessional conduct” that they said “demonstrates poor judgment and will affect the nominee’s credibility in the country where he has been nominated to serve.”
The White House stood behind McGurk’s nomination, but many Washington political observers felt he was no longer a tenable candidate.
“Everyone knew this nomination was dead as soon as the emails went public,” one Senate Republican aide told Reuters, noting that the Obama administration was already engaged in a bruising battle over allegations that classified information had been selectively leaked.
Reporting By Andrew Quinn and Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham