Iraq: Could It Ever Have Gone Right?

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

March 16, 2008

Review of Defeat, by Jonathan Steele.

What went wrong? Historian Bernard Lewis used the question as the title of his bestseller on the centuries-long decline of Muslim civilization, but it is now asked at least as frequently about America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. Today, the tower of books that explain our misadventure in Babylon is sky-high and growing.

Enough answers have emerged to suggest that the Bush administration’s failure was, as a psychoanalyst might put it, overdetermined. The lack of planning for the occupation, the subversion of the interagency process, inadequate intelligence on the organization of the Iraqi state, the refusal to allow planners to contemplate that U.S. forces might not be “greeted as liberators” (in Dick Cheney’s deathless phrase) — these are only a few of the canonical explanations for the inability to achieve anything like the stable, Western-oriented democracy that the White House sought.

America’s mistakes have been given an extensive airing in many excellent books, including those by George Packer, James Fallows, Thomas Ricks, Michael Gordon, Bernard Trainor, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Larry Diamond. In Defeat, British journalist Jonathan Steele has managed something that might have been deemed beyond reach: He has asked the question in a new and interesting way. In short, he wonders: Could we have ever gotten this right?

Most discussions have focused on one or another misstep after the decision was made to remove Saddam Hussein. The disbanding of the Iraqi military is one favorite — though many analysts place the pivotal failure earlier, when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that the invasion of Iraq was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his claim that military transformation — highly networked warfare with ultra-modern weapons — would make unnecessary the vast forces on which the Pentagon historically had relied. If Rumsfeld had deployed the “several hundred thousand soldiers” recommended by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, this argument runs, the manpower to maintain order would have been on hand when looting broke out after the demise of the Iraqi regime.

Events undoubtedly would have unfolded differently if Shinseki’s force had been in place. Steele argues, however, that the key issue was not numbers but culture: No matter how pleased Iraqis were to have their tyrant deposed, they were never going to accept a long-term occupation by Western forces. Ultimately, no number of boots on the ground would have extinguished the urge to rebel — a position that echoes early remarks by some U.S. generals, such as John Abizaid, that the American “footprint” was too large.

Any enduring presence of U.S. and British forces, Steele maintains, was doomed by attitudes deeply rooted in Iraqi history. The country’s relatively brief but brutal experience of British colonialism in the last century had left a lasting impression. Feelings of humiliation and antipathy to the West for more recent policies, ranging from support for Israel to U.N. sanctions, also smoldered despite the seemingly incontrovertible good deed of liberation from Saddam Hussein. (Many Iraqis, Steele suggests, harbored early suspicions about the invasion, with some believing that the Americans had come to steal the country’s oil — a belief that he, mistakenly, seems at times to share.) Administration spokesmen prattled on about an occupation reminiscent of postwar Germany or Japan, a misguided comparison both because of the size of U.S. forces involved and because Iraq had experienced nothing like the slate-clearing destruction suffered by World War II’s losers. The administration seemed to forget that the society it tried to take control of was Middle Eastern and heir to the grudges, mythologies and conspiracy theories that bedevil the region.

Adding to this hostility was the rise in Iraq, as throughout the Muslim world, of an Islamism — both Sunni and Shia — that made an armed Western presence anathema. A large coalition force could have snuffed out those first sparks of discontent, but an insurgency was inevitable. The failure to realize that, in Steele’s words, “Western armies cannot successfully take over Arab countries and force them to run along Western lines,” was compounded by the stunning ignorance of American leaders regarding Iraqi society and its many fracture lines. Bush apparently was too busy reading Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen’s primer on how to be a war president, to dip into any of the many volumes on one of the Middle East’s most complex societies. His minions were no more interested, and the result is summed up by the remark to Steele of an American colonel in Fallujah: “We had no idea we weren’t wanted.”

Steele’s book proceeds thematically, addressing issues such as the origins of Sunni resistance, Shia resistance and the rise of sectarianism. On the last, for example, he rebuts the oft-repeated charge that the Sunni and Shia are possessed by a centuries-old hatred that was just waiting to explode. Saddam, he agrees, exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions in the last decade of his rule, and, when al-Qaeda appeared on the scene, its massive killings of Shia provided a tipping point. But the U.S. approach of tilting one way and then the other between the two also helped enshrine sectarian divisions.

Defeat doesn’t have the elegance and pathos of Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate or the savage comedy of Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City. It is an understated book, informed by Steele’s wide reading in Iraqi history and his reporting over the course of eight stints of a month or more in Iraq between the invasion and 2007. What Steele has done is the important work of asking Iraqis how they felt when their loved ones were mistakenly killed at checkpoints or in crossfire, and what it was like to have a child mistakenly locked up for weeks. He has picked up on the small but vital things — like repeated nighttime house searches that produce such corrosive indignity that, as one Iraqi told Steele, “We’ve even lost our right to get undressed for bed.”

Ultimately, Steele concludes that a satisfactory outcome in Iraq might have been achieved only if the United States had turned the country over to the United Nations within a couple of months of the invasion. Many experts might say that was inconceivable, in part because of the low esteem the Bush team held for the U.N. and in part because of concerns about regional stability (a Kurdish secession, a war with Turkey, or intervention by Iran). But never mind that hypothetical. Jonathan Steele has begun an important discussion. The invasion of Iraq was America’s Jacobin moment, when the nation’s leadership was seized with the belief that it could do anything, even reshape human nature, because of the power we possess. If we’re going to remain a superpower, we will need to think deeply about how far our military might gets us, and how little it benefits us in a confrontation with the much harder realities of culture and history.