Reporter Jonathan Steele Examines Missteps in Iraq

Jonathan Steele

Jonathan Steele is a senior foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He has won several awards for his work, including being named International Reporter of the Year twice at the British Press Awards. Since 2003, he has completed eight assignments in Iraq, and he continues to cover Iraq, Darfur and Afghanistan. Courtesy Counterpoint Press hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Counterpoint Press

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Five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the conflict continues, and many Americans are distressed by the war's rising human and financial costs. Roughly 155,000 American troops remain on the ground in Iraq, and military analysts say a large U.S. presence is likely for many more years.

In the new book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq, Jonathan Steele dissects the war and explains how it could have been fought — and planned — more successfully.

Steele, a senior foreign correspondent for The Guardian, contends that the Bush and Blair administrations, by failing to balance military strategy with cultural sensitivities, were fighting an unwinnable battle from Day One. He puts the blame on a long history of Western imperialism in the Middle East, in addition to an ideology that he says was informed by abstract neoconservative theory rather than geopolitical realities.

Between 2003 and 2006, Steele completed eight reporting trips to Iraq. He draws from the experiences and voices of Iraqi sources to offer a fresh critique.

This reading of Defeat took place in April 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Defeat'

'Defeat' by Jonathan Steele

Chapter One: Iraq Without Iraqis

"All donne, go home" — Graffiti in Baghdad, June 2003

A rare joke circulated among Iraqis shortly before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met President George W. Bush in Amman in November 2006 to discuss the latest plan to end the country's pervasive insecurity. What would the US president be demanding? Answer: a timetable for Iraqis to withdraw from Iraq.

Every day 3,000 Iraqis were leaving the country to escape the threat of kidnapping, suicide bombers, and sectarian murder. In Baghdad around a hundred civilians were being abducted and killed every 24 hours, their recovered bodies often showing marks of torture and mutilation.

The joke was not just a bitter reference to the accelerating Iraqi exodus from Iraq, however. It reflected a widespread Iraqi feeling that Americans harboured a secret wish: an Iraq without Iraqis. The country's failure to organize a competent government, end the inter-communal violence, create a professional national army to replace the sectarian militias, and knuckle down to building a modern democratic state had drained the last ounce of American patience, it seemed. Blame for the disaster was increasingly being put on Iraqis themselves. The Americans had sacrificed thousands of their troops' lives and billions of US taxpayers' dollars. If things were not working, it must be the Iraqis' fault.

Judging by their behaviour, many US officials certainly seemed to prefer as little contact with Iraqis as possible. Even in the early days of the occupation in 2003, when travel outside Baghdad's Green Zone was perfectly safe, they confined themselves to a narrow set of contacts. When Barbara Bodine, a tough former US diplomat who was appointed by Washington to be Baghdad's first post-invasion mayor, suggested she would open her office in the city centre, 'there were cries of horror –"there are Iraqis there,"' an occupation official told me.

American advisers and other political staff in Iraq made little attempt to read up on Iraqi history or Arab culture. The State Department and other US agencies sent few of their Arabic-speakers. The available pool was not large before the invasion, and many US Arabists avoided applying for posts in Iraq, either because they knew enough about the Middle East to realize the invasion was a blunder, or because they feared a Baghdad posting would be a career-killer.

'The number of Americans who spoke Arabic in the Coalition Provisional Authority was shamefully, shockingly low,' commented Noah Feldman, who was senior constitutional adviser to the CPA, as the US occupation's civilian administration was called. He described how 'a chill went over me' when he peeped at what his fellow passengers were reading in the US military transport plane that flew him and other US officials to Baghdad in May 2003. 'Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf region. Without exception, they were reading new books on the American occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan,' he recalled.

Three and a half years later, when the USA was mired in massive difficulties in Iraq, the Bush administration's use of expertise was still feeble. The Baker-Hamilton Report revealed that in a staff of 1,000 at the US embassy in Baghdad there were only six Americans with fluent Arabic. It also revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, which was supposed to give advice on the aims and attitudes of America's enemies, had fewer than ten staffers with more than two years' experience of analysing the Iraqi insurgency. Officials were constantly rotated to new assignments.

Was this incompetence or wilful ignorance, a feeling that there was no need to try to understand what the majority of Iraqis were saying or thinking? Iraqis were going to be given a Western-style secular liberal democracy, whether they wanted it or not. Or perhaps the Americans and British subconsciously sensed they might be told things they did not want to hear – it was better to stay in the Green Zone and the coalition's provincial HQs, and talk only to those Iraqis who had clear benefits to gain from the occupation, such as jobs on its payroll or project grants.

Some Iraqis sought to make their views known. Sometimes they tried their hand at English. Spelling was not his strong point, but the person who wrote the graffiti on the pedestal where Saddam Hussein's statue once stood in Baghdad's Firdous Square had a clear message: 'All donne, go home'.

It was less than three months since US Marines had put steel hawsers round the statue's metal neck and brought it crashing to the ground. Shown live on television, the scene was the iconic proof of a great American victory, regularly replayed in countless documentaries. The Marines briefly hoisted the Stars and Stripes above Saddam's head, a humiliating image of conquest that Iraqis and millions of other Arab TV-watchers remember, even if most Americans forget. Weeks later, American troops were still posted outside the nearby Palestine Hotel and US officials frequently visited the building, which housed several American TV networks. They could not avoid seeing that at least one Iraqi graffiti-writer had already lost patience with the occupation.

Prominent Iraqis were more polite, although even they were reluctant to thank the Americans for the invasion. There was a telling moment when the 25 Iraqis whom the USA had just appointed to the so-called Interim Governing Council (IGC) were paraded before the media in Saddam's old convention centre on 13 July 2003. Halfway through the proceedings Ahmad Chalabi, the long-time exile who became the Pentagon's favourite Iraqi, strode to the microphone to say he wished 'to express the gratitude of the Iraqi people to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for liberating Iraq'. We waited for applause. The other 24 appointees looked stunned and embarrassed. No one clapped Chalabi's remarks, even though comments by earlier speakers had been applauded.

Insensitive to his colleagues' views but with an eye on L. Paul Bremer, the CPA boss who was sitting in the front row below the stage, Chalabi ploughed on. He proposed that 9 April, the day the Saddam statue was toppled, should become a national holiday with the title Liberation Day. Again, there was silence. At its first working session shortly afterwards the IGC did take up the idea of a national holiday but they pointedly rejected Chalabi's title. They decided to call 9 April The Day the Regime Fell.

The council's avoidance of the L-word (in his memoirs Bremer always spelt it with a capital 'L') reflected its members' understanding that few Iraqis were as jubilant about the invasion as Chalabi. This fact had become clear in the very first days when US troops came across armed resistance on the edge of Basra and in the largely Shia city of Nassiriya. It did not conform to the pre-war briefings they had received. 'I imagined Iraqi women would be greeting us with flowers in our gun tubes, and holding up babies to be kissed,' one American soldier who almost lost his life in Nassiriya commented later.

Within hours of Saddam's downfall reporters repeatedly met Iraqis who felt shame and anger at finding their country under occupation. Many were deeply suspicious of American intentions. My translator, Abbas Ali Hussein, took me to his family home in Baghdad on 15 April, just less than a week after the Saddam statue was toppled. His brother Hassan was sitting in the sparsely furnished front room looking depressed. Was he some unhappy Saddam supporter, I wondered? Far from it. Now in his early thirties, Hassan explained he had studied at Baghdad's prestigious oil institute a decade earlier but on graduation decided not to take a job as a geologist or engineer. The state had a monopoly of oil extraction and refining, and Hassan felt he hated Saddam Hussein too much to want to work for the Iraqi regime. Instead, he found a job in the private sector as a taxi driver.

Well educated, a man of principle, and a Shia, here was the kind of man who, the Americans expected, would surely be thrilled by the arrival of US troops. Washington saw Iraq in sectarian terms and viewed the Shias, along with the Kurds, as the biggest victims of Saddam's regime. What did Hassan think of the dictator's removal from power? 'Saddam betrayed us,' he told me.

Startled, I asked him what he meant. 'He didn't organise any resistance in Baghdad,' Hassan replied. He went on to hint that there might have been a secret deal between Bush and Saddam under which Saddam would refrain from ordering his forces to defend the capital. Abbas nodded in agreement. 'The United States must leave Iraq to the Iraqi people. We must rule ourselves,' he said. 'We have many educated people. We can do this. We want the Americans to leave today.'

The next day, at Baghdad's main hospital for children, I found the same sense of shame that foreign troops were in the heart of the Iraqi capital. Dr Abdul Hamid al-Saddoun, a heart specialist, was presiding over a scene of monumental scarcity. Sick children lay on cheap vinyl mattresses under tattered blankets. There were no sheets. Guards at the front gate had done an outstanding job in keeping looters out of the building, but the hospital was chronically short of basic equipment, from oxygen canisters to bandages, gauze, and surgical gloves. Dr Saddoun said he was appealing to the Americans for supplies, but he also wanted them out. 'Everything is settling down now. Iraq will be Iraq. We will not accept an American or British occupation,' he insisted.

On the second Friday after US troops entered Baghdad, nationalist pride and Islamist fervour were in full view on the streets. Thousands poured out of mosques in the mainly Sunni district of Adhamiya, chanting both anti-Saddam and anti-American slogans. The organisers called themselves the Iraqi National United Movement and said they represented both Muslim communities, Sunni and Shia. One of the biggest columns emerged from the Abu Hanifa mosque, whose dome was damaged during the invasion. 'No to America. No to Saddam. Our revolution is Islamic,' some chanted. One protester I interviewed prefigured the insurgency: 'We will give the Americans a few months to leave Iraq. If they do not, we will fight them with knives,' he said. I watched as a dozen US marines appeared in front of the marchers. A few protesters waved their fists and shouted 'America is God's enemy'. The troops turned into an alley and there was no confrontation.

The following week, hundreds of thousands of Shias turned out for the annual pilgrimage to Kerbala to the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Hussein was executed or 'martyred', as Shias say, after being taken prisoner. Under Saddam pilgrims were banned from walking along the main roads; they had to make their way to Kerbala in small groups in vehicles or through villages. Now they celebrated their freedom, marching in long columns down the main highway south from Baghdad, or north from Nassiriya and other cities in the Shia heartland. The atmosphere was good humoured, even though the festival of Ashoura is essentially a collective mourning, during which many carry palm fronds and flagellate themselves symbolically.

The mass march was not designed to be explicitly political. However, the huge outpouring of Shias onto one of Iraq's key highways for the first time for a generation could not help but send a political message. Here was a community coming alive at last. The image of Saddam's statue being toppled was what Americans saw as the defining moment of their invasion, even though fewer than 200 Iraqis were on hand and most watched in silence. For Iraqis the televised tides of devout Shias presented a more powerful picture of a new Iraq. It was an exclusively Iraqi event, and there was little in the mood of the marchers to comfort Bush or Washington's neoconservatives.

I heard many points of view firsthand during the march. On 21 April, in Kerbala's outskirts, Umm Zahra, in the long, black cloak known as an abbaya, was standing by her front gate with other women similarly clad. 'I want an Islamic president. Only an educated clergyman can give us peace and security. We want the US troops to go,' she told me.

Halfway along the 50-mile stretch from Baghdad to Kerbala scores of men were resting on the banks of the Euphrates in the spring sunshine. 'If the US prevents us having a religious leader as president, we will reject it,' one said. Referring to the Shia religious and educational establishment in Najaf known as Al-Hawza, he went on: 'If Al-Hawza orders us to turn ourselves into bombs, we can make the US leave Iraq. We say, "Thank you for getting rid of Saddam. Now goodbye."'

I heard a few expressions of unconditional gratitude. 'Please tell Mr Blair "God bless him,"' said Abdullah Ganin, an English teacher from Najaf. 'If Bush wants to become a Muslim, he will enter paradise for sure,' a middle-aged man told me. But comments as warm as these were rare. These were not the cheering crowds, as predicted by Washington's neoconservatives before the invasion. The hundreds of thousands of marchers were Islamists. They did not support secular liberal values; they were not pro-Western.

Without being as starry-eyed as the neoconservatives, most other Western politicians also convinced themselves that Iraqis were so eager to see Saddam removed they would applaud a foreign invasion. In the weeks before Bush gave the go-ahead a stream of Iraqi exiles had passed through the White House and Downing Street, giving this message. Exiles who were against an invasion, including generals and diplomats who had defected from Saddam and strongly opposed him, tended not to be invited. On their way out of their meetings Bush's and Blair's specially selected guests hastened to tell the media they supported the looming invasion. Saddam's three decades of tyranny and war-mongering had brought untold suffering to Iraqis and his support was paper-thin. His army would not fight another war, and certainly not this one. All this was true, but their third point, that the invaders would be greeted as liberators, was highly dubious. Proper political intelligence plus some historical understanding of Iraq would have shown it to be wrong.

Meanwhile, the US and British governments' spin-machines pilloried the swelling crowds of anti-war marchers in New York City and London as appeasers. They gave prominence to anti-war politicians like Tony Benn and George Galloway, who had campaigned against US and British sanctions on Iraq and made trips to Baghdad to see Saddam. Their presence at the head of demonstrations was falsely trumpeted as evidence that the protesters understood little of Saddam's atrocities and that anti-Americanism was blinding the marchers to the side that was the biggest violator of human rights.

Bush and Blair wanted to believe the pro-war exiles' encouraging words. They took the line that if you were against Saddam you would be for the invasion. They also latched on to the supposed corollary – if you opposed the invasion you must be a Saddam supporter. It was easy to fall for such a set of arguments.

What did Iraqis really believe, however? Would there be gratitude and cooperation or sullen acquiescence, which might develop into active resistance? Getting the right answer was surely as important as verifying whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. It should have been a crucial factor in the war-planning in Washington and London, at least if serious options were to be considered for how to govern the country after the fall of Saddam.

Yet almost nothing was done to assess the true state of Iraqi opinion. The USA had no embassy in Iraq, and nor did Britain, unlike every other major European country. So the two countries most anxious to launch a war were the ones with least information about Iraqi society and an invasion's likely consequences. Western intelligence services were equally hamstrung; they had few human assets in Iraq to provide an accurate picture. As a result, the views of pro-war Iraqi exiles rose to prominence by default. Conveniently, they agreed with what Bush and Blair already wanted to do.

The US National Intelligence Council, which coordinates and summarises the analysis of the various US intelligence agencies, produced two reports on the regional consequences of regime change in Iraq and the principal challenges in post-Saddam Iraq. A heavily redacted version of these reports was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on 25 May 2007. The agencies were right in some predictions but spectacularly wrong in others. Among their correct assessments was their view that 'the building of an Iraqi democracy would be a long, difficult, and turbulent process, with potential for backsliding into Iraq's tradition of authoritarianism'. They also noted that Iraq's political culture did 'not foster liberalism or democracy' and that 'the practical implementation of democratic rule would be difficult in a country with no concept of loyal opposition and no history of alternation of power'.

The intelligence agencies were less well informed about the crucial issue of Islam. They expected the 'US-led occupation of Arab Iraq probably would boost proponents of political Islam', but thought this would happen throughout the Middle East rather than in Iraq itself. They completely underestimated the strength of Iraq's Islamists, saying efforts at democratization after an invasion would benefit from 'the current relative weakness of political Islam in Iraq'. They couched their analysis of Iraq in sectarian terms and thought the risk of violent conflict between Sunnis and Shias was high. With hindsight this may seem prescient, but it was a conclusion that the intelligence analysts based on faulty assumptions. They felt Sunni–Shia tensions were endemic in Iraq and the occupying force would act to prevent them becoming violent.

In fact Sunni–Shia tension was not a significant feature of modern Iraq, as the thousands of mixed marriages and mixed neighbourhoods testify. It was the occupation's policies that played a role, though not the only one, in increasing Sunni–Shia tensions, thereby contributing to the appalling sectarian violence of the last two years (as I explain in Chapter VIII).

Four months before the invasion Blair made a brief stab at getting expert views from outside the circle of his official advisers. On 19 November 2002 he invited six academics to Downing Street, three specialists on Iraq, and three on international security issues. George Joffe, a distinguished Arabist from Cambridge University, and his two fellow Iraq experts – Charles Tripp and Toby Dodge, who had both authored books on Iraq's history – took it in turns to make opening statements of about five minutes each. They were not asked to produce written memos. Before the meeting they decided not to risk antagonising Blair by saying an invasion was unwise, they thought they would have more impact by concentrating on the nature of its consequences.

Joffe recalled that 'We all pretty much said the same thing: Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don't imagine you'll be welcomed.' He spoke last of the three. He still remembers exactly how Blair reacted: 'He looked at me and said, "But the man's uniquely evil, isn't he?" I was a bit nonplussed. It didn't seem to be very relevant.' Recovering, Joffe went on to argue that Saddam was constrained by various factors, to which Blair merely repeated his first point: 'He can make choices, can't he?' As Joffe puts it, 'He meant he can choose to be good or evil, I suppose.'

From Defeat by Jonathan Steele. Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Steele, Published in the United States by Counterpoint Press.

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Why America and Britian Lost Iraq

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