Iraq: See no Evil, Hear no Evil
Jonathan Steele's new book, Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, is a cautionary tale outlining the dangers of outsiders deluding themselves into seeing only what they want to see in Iraq. Its publication couldn't have come at a better moment, since foreign policy and media elites in the United States are now slipping back into ignoring Iraq's complicated realities and promoting simplistic narratives like "the surge has worked" and "we're winning." In many ways, today's story lines are just as disconnected from facts on the ground as the Iraq debate was prior to the start of the war in 2003 -- and the dangers of leaving the conventional wisdom unquestioned are as great today as they were then.
Steele, a columnist for the Guardian, paints a picture in his new book that will sound familiar to many Iraq watchers. We hear that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a style that encouraged groupthink and discouraged debate against his policies. As in the US, Britain's political leaders and top bureaucrats ignored analyses offered by Iraq experts that accurately predicted how Iraqis freed from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship would react to the presence of foreign military forces in their country.
In one of the most telling passages of his book, Steele describes escalating violence between Iraqis and US troops in the city of Fallujah just weeks after the fall of Baghdad. Iraqis opposed the presence of US troops in their neighbourhoods and started to make this opposition known. They began organising protests and then later started attacking US troops, leading to a downward spiral of conflict resulting in two major battles in the year that followed. Steele interviews a US battalion commander who says: "We had no idea we weren't wanted." In this one quote, Steele captures what was and remains the fundamental problem with the approach to Iraq carved out by the United States and its British allies - the unwillingness and perhaps inability to step outside of the bubble and see things from the Iraqi perspective.
Flash forward to 2008, and Iraq is a much different country, reeling from the impact of nearly five years of conflict and sectarian strife. The conflict has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions more, and many parts of the country have suffered from years of lacking regular basic services like clean water and electricity. Despite all of these changes in Iraq, in one key way, the United States is unchanged: most of its foreign policy and media elites believe what they want to believe and hear what they want to hear.
The simple phrase that "the surge has worked" is one example of the conventional wisdom that has bubbled up among many quarters in Washington. This phrase is true if one accepts a perverse definition of the word "worked" and ignores the inconvenient truth that millions of Iraqis were pushed out of their homes last year even while the US increased is troop presence by about 20 percent in the country. Violence is down, proponents of this "surge has worked" narrative say, because of the increased presence of US troops, ignoring the impact that last year's continued sectarian cleansing campaigns have had on the Iraqi people. They ignore that the surge has further complicated and impeded, rather than facilitated, the process of getting Iraq's leaders to agree to share power. They also speak of so-called "bottom up reconciliation" among Sunnis, even while they overlook greater fragmentation and divisions among Sunnis in Iraq and rarely examine complicated intra-Shia dynamics and growing tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds.
The US has deluded itself for far too long by projecting its own paradigms and internal debates onto Iraq, without doing enough listening and even-handed analysis of the complicated dynamics in the country. But Americans seem somehow destined to remake the same mistakes over and over again in different forms.
In today's Washington, former government officials and aspiring staffers in the next administration regularly gather in working groups around tables at thinktanks to discuss dynamics 6,000 miles away. Most participants in these meetings don't speak Arabic, and if they have spent much time on the ground in Iraq, it is either with the US military or as a guest of the military in established safe zones and bubbles disconnected from Iraq's grim realities. They read each others' opinion editorials and blog posts, and they get quoted in articles by the same journalists who attend the same thinktank forums. They debate whether tweaks in a security assistance package to Iraq can promote power-sharing deals among Iraqi factions, and have heated disputes over whether US troops should stay in Iraq for five versus 10 years. They dismiss those who question certain fundamentals, like whether it is wise for the US to remain in Iraq in an open-ended commitment, as irresponsible or not serious.
These smart, eager and enthusiastic individuals usually have the best of intentions, but sometimes lack other key qualities -- humility and perspective. Steele's book provides a bit of both -- and should motivate readers to question the assumptions at the heart of today's conventional wisdom on Iraq by reminding us of the mistakes made in recent years. Sadly, sometimes people don't learn from current events, let alone from their own history, and they become unable to question the intellectual constructs in which their careers are invested. Steele offers a chance to see Iraq from a new perspective. The question is whether he will find a willing and interested audience in Washington.