Writing through the rubble

While clouds of destruction hang over Iraq, a set of new books sheds light on how America bungled the war, and on the hope that lingers in small Iraqi towns.


Salon Staff
March 21, 2008 4:00PM (UTC)

It's been five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- enough time to start looking back, with the hope of better understanding where we are now. We have picked an assortment of titles from among the books published this spring that sift through the documents and memories of invasion, war and occupation: a scathing portrait of a mismanaged war; a humorous compilation of quotations by those very experts who mismanaged the war; a memoir by an Iraqi-American of his years in war-torn Baghdad; and a biography of Ahmad Chalabi, whom the book's author dubbed "the man who pushed America to war."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Advertisement:

"Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq," by Jonathan Steele

As the full dimensions of the Iraq nightmare have become apparent, the war's supporters have taken to insisting that it could have been won had it been executed properly. If only the United States had planned for the postwar period, stopped the looting, not disbanded the Iraqi army, and not banned the Baath Party, they say, it could have had a successful outcome.

Like all after-the-fact assertions, this one cannot be proved one way or the other. But in his superb new book "Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq," the British journalist Jonathan Steele makes a powerful case that it was not the poor decisions made during the occupation that doomed the United States, it was the occupation itself. The only way the U.S. and Britain could have succeeded, Steele argues, was by withdrawing their troops within a year or less after deposing Saddam. Military occupations always arouse resentment, and in the Middle East they are especially doomed to failure. Acutely aware of the West's long history of imperialist exploitation of their country and the Middle East in general, Iraqis were suspicious of U.S. motivations to begin with. They were also fiercely proud and nationalistic, and far more religious than the Bush administration realized. By staying too long, America and Britain brought already-simmering nationalist and religious outrage in Iraq to a boil -- and doomed their mission.

Just as important, Steele points out, Iraq isn't just any country -- it's an Arab and Muslim country in the heart of the Middle East. And for political, historical and cultural reasons, an occupation by Western powers was inevitably going to be disastrous. Britain's long history of imperialist meddling, in particular its invasion and occupation of Iraq in 1918 and its betrayal of Arab nationalist hopes, meant that Arabs viewed it with hostility. The United States was even more disliked because of its one-sided support for Israel and its long exploitation of the region. Steele writes that "the enormity of having Western tanks on Arab streets revives memories of an era of imperialism that was supposed to be over; the foreigners' presence brings back every Arab's latent sense of shame."

These points should have been obvious. Scholars like Rashid Khalidi had long warned that for Arabs, history is ever-present. But U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair chose to ignore the West's colonialist history, Arab nationalism and the rise of Islamism within Iraq. Instead, they clung to the bizarrely simplistic belief that Saddam's sins had simply erased history, and that Iraqis would be so overjoyed to be liberated that they would welcome a Western invasion and occupation. Steele recounts that four months before the invasion, Blair brought in six academics from outside his yes-man circle of official advisors to brief him. One expert, a distinguished Arabist from Cambridge named George Joffe, recalled that "we all said pretty much the same thing: Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don't imagine you'll be welcomed." Blair's response was simply to say, "But the man's uniquely evil, isn't he?"

Another expert present at the meeting told Steele, " I felt that he [Blair] wanted us to reinforce his gut instinct that Saddam was a monster. It was a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervor."

Advertisement:

Unlike the administrations that rushed myopically to war, Steele has both a solid grasp of Mideast history and a firsthand knowledge of Iraq and its people. An award-winning foreign correspondent for the Guardian, he covered the 2003 invasion and has done eight stints in Iraq since. One of the most illuminating and valuable parts of his book is his reporting on the attitudes of Iraqis living in Amman, Jordan, just before the invasion began. Stationed there in preparation for the war, Steele interviewed 20 Iraqis, some refugees, others students and businessmen who traveled back and forth to Baghdad.

Steele acknowledges that his survey was small and unscientific, but asserts that "it conveyed what seemed to be a plausibly accurate sense of a nation's mood." Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the Iraqis Steele talked to were vehemently opposed to Saddam. But that didn't mean they welcomed the invasion. Several did, but most had grave reservations or opposed the war outright. Many feared a chaotic aftermath. One young student feared that the vast Shiite underclass living in the Baghdad slum of Saddam City would engage in massive looting -- a comment, Steele points out, which "underlined a point that many Western analysts failed to understand -- that the tensions that were to explode in Iraq after the invasion often had a class dimension." One man worried that the Americans might not leave quickly: "The Iraqi people will rebuild their house the day after Saddam goes. If the US tries to meddle, we will fight them to the last breath. Iraqis hate Saddam, but they love their country more. That's why Iraqis are torn about the invasion."

The two recurring themes raised by the Iraqis, Steele notes, were "suspicions of the Americans and national pride. Failure to understand this Iraqi patriotism was the single biggest mistake made by Bush and Blair ... It was this inability to put themselves into the mindset of the Iraqis that doomed the occupation to defeat." Just as Bush absurdly claimed that jihadist terrorists attacked America "because they hate our freedom," so coalition authorities denied that the insurgency had increasingly broad popular support, insisting that it comprised only the "remnants" of Saddam's regime and foreign jihadis. "If the coalition did not even start by accepting that many Iraqis saw legitimate reasons for resistance," Steele asks, "how could the Americans and British ever win people's hearts and minds?"

Steele believes that if the United States had pulled its troops out quickly, it could have survived Iraqi suspicion and hostility. He cites numerous cases in which Iraqis from all walks of life and sectarian backgrounds warned that the Iraqi people had not yet turned against the Americans, but that they needed to leave soon. A graffito written in Baghdad in 2003 sums up their viewpoint poignantly: "All donne, go home."

Advertisement:

But early withdrawal was never an option, Steele notes, because for its neocon architects, the war was not really about liberating the Iraqi people -- it was about larger geostrategic goals, including "removing an independent anti-Israeli ruler" and securing "access to the country's oil reserves." Steele notes, "The neoconservatives always wanted a prolonged occupation as a way to put new pressure on Iran and Syria, develop US military bases on Iraqi soil, and send a message of US dominance across the Middle East."

Contrary to revisionist beliefs, Steele argues, the U.S. decrees disbanding the Iraqi army and banning the Baathists were not the ultimate reasons the occupation failed. The decrees made things worse, he writes, but the real problem was that the United States refused to name a date for withdrawal. That convinced Iraqis, who had been willing to give America a grace period, that the U.S. had come not as a liberating force, but as occupiers.

And after the insurgency began, instead of recognizing that this was a war the United States could never win and getting out, Bush put the issue "in macho terms of 'not letting the enemy win.'" He has clung to that doomed approach ever since. "The more US troops died, the greater became the temptation to stay in Iraq so that there could be no perception of the US giving up or retreating. The dynamic is as old as war itself."

Advertisement:

One of the reasons the United States could never win the war, Steele argues, is the ugly tactics its soldiers often used, which turned the Iraqis against them. Some of these tactics are the inevitable result of fighting a guerrilla enemy, but others are not excusable. Steele tells the story of an 11-year-old boy named Sufian Abd al-Ghani, who was arrested with his uncle and a neighbor after American troops claimed his uncle had fired at them. The American troops beat the three captives with rifle butts, according to Sufian's father, and searched the house. Although they found nothing, they placed hoods on their captives' heads and drove them away. The boy was held for 24 days and was only released thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic American captain.

"How could an 11-year-old child be held for over three weeks without anyone in authority asking questions?" Steele asks rhetorically. The answer: The United States had made no plans for how to police Iraq.

Some of the brutal behavior was due to the U.S. military's insistence on "force protection" above all else, which led to hundreds of innocent Iraqis being killed at checkpoints or on the street. But Steele has the courage to point out that Islamophobia and racism, which stemmed from the very nature of Bush's war, played a major role. "Politicians in Washington may have been referring to Iraqis as a 'liberated people' but, with a few individual exceptions, US soldiers and officers behaved as though they were a conquered enemy. Given that a majority of Americans thought Saddam was linked to the attacks of 9/11, many soldiers saw the occupation as 'payback time.' ... Bush's war on terror had ... created a general sense of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia, which devalued Arab lives."

Advertisement:

One of the most interesting, and audacious, aspects of Steele's book is its insistence that Arab culture played a critical role in the U.S. defeat. "The Bush administration did not understand that Arabs feel great sensitivity to assaults on their honour, dignity, and independence, especially by Westerners."

This blind spot is ironic, considering that the central role played by shame and honor in Arab culture is an important part of the theories of the best-known neoconservative intellectual, Bernard Lewis, who has argued that Arab/Muslim humiliation over their failure to keep up with the West is the driving force behind Islamist radicalism. There's some truth in this. But in part because Lewis denied that Arabs had any real grievances against the West, he drew a fatefully wrong conclusion, believing that a good kick in the face would do the Arab world good.

In fact, this approach, which hid the quasi-racist mantra "Arabs understand only force" beneath a multiculturally correct veneer, was the worst possible strategy. And Americans should have known this. Steele writes, "If analogies were relevant when Washington's war planners prepared their attack on Iraq, it was Israel and Palestine that should have been the template, not Germany or Japan. Sending US and British troops to occupy an Arab country in the 21st century was bound to be as difficult as it has been for Israeli troops to occupy the West Bank for the last 40 years."

The Iraq war failed because of ignorance born of arrogance. Until the American establishment -- both the government and the mainstream media -- tries to actually understand the Middle East, its history, its culture and its people, America's policies in the region are doomed to keep failing. This book is a good place to start. -- Gary Kamiya

Advertisement:

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Howling in Mesopotamia: True Tales From Beyond the Green Zone," by Haider Ala Hamoudi

Shortly after the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, rumors spread among the local populace that the sunglasses of U.S. soldiers were specially engineered to see through women's clothing. To counter this propaganda, a young Iraqi-American lawyer named Haider Ala Hamoudi borrowed sunglasses from an American sergeant and passed them around to local children, then to a scandalized Iraqi elder, who recoiled and cried: "I take refuge in Allah from the wiles of Satan!"

At some point, it seems, the clash of civilizations must devolve into sitcom. Although if "Howling in Mesopotamia," Hamoudi's memoir of life outside the Green Zone, resembles anything, it's a Middle East update of "Our Town," with small-town rituals somehow surviving amid the ruins.

Advertisement:

Hot today ... You can already smell the sewage. Someone round the corner's shootin' off an AK-47. Oh, and up on the roof, there's Omar the Crazy Palestinian, sayin' it's jihad time. Down the street comes Cousin Ali, lookin' mighty peeved. Seems those American boys went and shot out the transmission of his Brazilian Volkswagen....

All in all, Baghdad is a sadder sort of town than Grover's Corners: electricity spotty, roads unpaved, telephones in disrepair, long lines for gasoline, and, since the United States has cordoned off a big hunk of the central city for its own purposes, monster traffic jams. Did we mention the constant threat of death? Even a trip to the local Italian restaurant is fraught with danger, so most of the city's residents retreat to their television sets, where they enjoy the weird thrall of seeing their own country's affairs play across multiple channels.

Hamoudi's U.S. citizenship gives him access to the other side of the checkpoints, where he gets to hear Coalition Provisional Authority officials declare: "We know how to build countries. We are experts at that." In one richly metaphoric moment, U.S. soldiers seize contraband gasoline from black-market traders and pour it into the streets of Baghdad, giving Islamic terrorists a perfect opportunity to set the city on fire.

So how did a nice second-generation Iraqi-American from Columbus, Ohio, end up in the belly of this beast? By his own testimony, Haider Ala Hamoudi went to Baghdad in July 2003 for an Iraqi reason -- to draft new laws for the post-Saddam government -- and also for what might crassly be called an American reason: to make a shitload of money.

"Naively," he writes, "I imagined investors pumping large streams of capital into this oil-rich and undeveloped land, and I knew well their first rule when making investments in such areas -- get a lawyer." Except potential investors are scared away by suicide bombers, and as for creating a "brave new legal world in Iraq" -- well, "Howling in Mesopotamia" is, finally, a fever chart of Hamoudi's disillusionment.

Advertisement:

April 2004: "The occupation had failed." A short while later: "In spite of the terrorism, in spite of the American blunders, in spite of the crime and the hate and the war and the death and the looting, and in spite of the obvious, I still believed." A couple of months on: "Human beings could not live here." And after the January 2005 elections: "Iraq as a nation had failed, it had been carved up into fiefs, each controlled by a combination of chiefs, clerics, militias, and tribal elders."

When Hamoudi is at last offered a role in shaping the new government's constitution, he flatly declines, pleading exhaustion. "I could spare nothing more for this country. I had done what I could, for as long as I could, and could bear no more duty, no more despair, no more unhappiness. I had to leave. I had to live."

Which is to say: live without fear. The American side of him wins out, after all, and if anything keeps "Howling in Mesopotamia" from being a more stirring testament, it's the reader's sense that Hamoudi is ready and able at every moment to flee.

And in fact he does: takes a fellowship at Columbia Law School and heads back home with his new Iraqi wife. The choices he made -- leaving Baghdad, for instance, for the relative safety of Kurdistan -- are perfectly understandable in human terms, but they also reinforce his position of privilege and leave fissures in the cast of his martyrdom. Surely, the disenchantment of one Ivy League lawyer matters far less than the fate of the people he left behind, the men and women who, in Hamoudi's telling, are not just howling but enduring, in expected and unexpected ways. -- Louis Bayard

Advertisement:

"The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi," by Aram Roston

To many, Ahmad Chalabi is an Iraqi hero, the charismatic champion of a free Iraq who would stop at nothing to reach his goal: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. To others, he is a dangerous operator whose obsession with returning to the lost Iraq of his childhood knew no bounds -- the man who, in the name of freedom, fed bogus "intelligence" on WMD and Saddam's supposed contacts with al-Qaida to the media, including the now disgraced Judith Miller. Chalabi, as "The Man Who Pushed America to War," the fascinating new biography by NBC investigative reporter Aram Roston, makes clear, is all of this and more. A debonair mathematician, banker and fraudster from a wealthy Iraqi banking family who received millions of dollars from the CIA and other U.S. government agencies to fund his political and propaganda activities, Chalabi played a scandalously huge role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Roston calls him "the man who pushed America to war," and he makes his case.

Ahmad Chalabi first got involved with the CIA in the early 1990s. He had fled to London from Amman, Jordan, after his Petra Bank was shut down by the government -- one of many Chalabi banks and corporations that had gotten into legal trouble. Although lawyers were crawling "all over the carcass of the Chalabi banking empire," Chalabi commandeered his considerable charm and Rolodex to start building up a new sort of business aimed at the ouster of Saddam Hussein. After Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. government turned against its former ally, Chalabi emerged as a leading voice for a democratic Iraq and became a trusted source for many journalists. Saddam survived the Gulf War, of course, but after formal hostilities ended, George H.W. Bush set up a covert program to topple the dictator, releasing millions of dollars into the CIA's bloodstream. It was then that Chalabi came into the fold, beginning a long and contentious relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies that would fund his operations for more than a decade, including some of the false info on WMD that made it into Colin Powell's fateful 2003 speech at the United Nations.

Roston spells out Chalabi's impact on America as having three components: ideological, primarily through his deep influence on the neoconservatives; political, through his masterly ability to work the power corridors of Washington; and as a source for "intelligence," which he spoonfed both to the U.S. government and to some of the biggest media outlets in this hemisphere.

Advertisement:

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, it's still galling to contemplate the chorus line of lies that was trotted out to sell the war. In perhaps the most enraging section of the book, Roston details how Chalabi and his team within the Iraqi National Congress created four major narratives linking Saddam to WMD and al-Qaida -- all of which were lies. Saddam's hijacking school for Islamic terrorists (Salman Pak); the underground silos for chemical and nuclear weapons; the mobile WMD labs; and the claim from Saddam's mistress that the dictator had met with Osama bin Laden: These stories came largely from "defectors" supplied by Chalabi and the INC, which, as the leading exile organization with powerful supporters in the White House, Congress and intelligence community, had major credibility. Plus it had access. Chalabi's long career of courting journalists -- he'd befriended Judith Miller back in Jordan, for example -- paid off in spades as he doled out "scoops" to top reporters at "60 Minutes," Vanity Fair, ABC, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other venerable outlets. For even more spin, Chalabi could count on the services of the A-list conservative Washington lobbying firm Black Kelly Scruggs & Healy, which, with government knowledge, represented Chalabi and his interests.

All of this activity, Roston reveals, was financed by U.S. taxpayers. By this time it was no longer the CIA paying the bills, but the State Department and later the Defense Intelligence Agency. Although the CIA had come to mistrust Chalabi (the agency transferred its financial support to Awad Allawi, Chalabi's arch rival), he still found many sympathetic ears in the intelligence community for his defectors' tales. The claims by the Iraqi civil engineer Adnan Haideri about underground weapons storage made it into the National Intelligence Estimate. When David Rose's explosive story on mobile weapons labs came out in Vanity Fair in 2002, the CIA and DIA knew it was bunk. But the story thrived in the media and was eventually cited as fact by Colin Powell in his U.N. speech. Thanks to the dysfunctional rivalry between the CIA, the Department of Defense and the State Department, the shadow intelligence effort run out of the White House to justify the need to invade Iraq, and the fact that the INC was an entity funded by the U.S. government, let's just say that the truth, it did not out.

Rose, who is humiliated by his reporting errors and winces when he remembers how he came under Chalabi's spell, tells Roston that he's "absolutely convinced the INC was mounting a sophisticated disinformation campaign." Indeed, Mohammed al-Zubaidi, the INC's man on the ground in the Middle East, now says that even at the time he didn't believe key elements of the INC defectors' stories.

Chalabi is by all accounts a brilliant, sophisticated man -- with a personal magnetism that is legendary. He easily dazzled journalists, intellectuals, politicians and other powerbrokers with his charm and erudition (he was a gifted professor of mathematics before getting into the family's banking business), and always had a group of loyalists around him. Besides his many media friends, perhaps his most important group of supporters were the neoconservatives, including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Ledeen and Douglas Feith, who saw in Chalabi their ideal "Arab democrat," the force that they believed would be unleashed when their dream of regime change in Iraq was realized. Chalabi himself was no neoconservative. And in spite of his rhetoric, his commitment to democracy was also murky. His deep ties with Iran's Islamic revolution never waned (it was rumored, but never proved, that he was an Iranian agent), causing more moderate Iraqi exile leaders to question his belief in a secular society and human rights. Indeed, after Saddam fell, he formed a coalition with the radical Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, hardly a force for democracy in Iraq.

Over the years, Chalabi's network of neoconservative friends opened doors for him in many ways. In 1998, when Chalabi was on the outs with the CIA and looking for funding, Pentagon analyst Harold Rhode introduced him to Max Singer, an ardent pro-Israel conservative who wrote a paper based on Chalabi's theories of democratic power in the Middle East and tried, at Chalabi's urging, to vouch for him to the Israeli government. In the end, the Mossad didn't bite, but "it attests to the impressive breadth of Chalabi's allure" that a U.S. Defense Department official would try to broker such a deal when his own government wasn't interested. In that same year, conservative legislative aide Stephen Rademaker, heavily influenced by Chalabi, drafted a law to make regime change in Iraq U.S. policy. "The U.S. congress passed a law written largely to achieve his vision and to boost the fortune of his political vehicle, the Iraqi National Congress," Roston writes. Later, some of the funds attached to that law would of course flow into Chalabi's coffers.

After Sept. 11, when neoconservatives were well placed in the White House, Chalabi didn't even have to lobby for his agenda. For example, Stephen Hadley, then deputy National Security Advisor, formed the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a bogus nonprofit created as a vehicle for promoting regime change and the INC. "It was a remarkable move by the Bush administration," says Roston, "to invent a nongovernmental organization to push its policy."

In the end, Chalabi did get his invasion -- although the occupation dashed his plans of being immediately installed as the head of a U.S. backed "democratic" regime. But even though Chalabi's fingerprints were all over it, it was America's war, and this country bears all the responsibility. Still, it is sobering to contemplate the central role of one individual, who was not an American citizen and who presided over a corrupt, if not criminal, financial empire that went down in ruins, in this catastrophic event. Roston estimates that Chalabi and his party received more than $59 million from U.S. intelligence agencies in exchange for "his organizing skills, his propaganda, and a handful of false intelligence bits." As with his banks, Chalabi's U.S. funded operations were run pretty much off the books. The central question raised by Roston's book, and why it's essential reading for understanding this tragic period in our history, is not how could one man have so much power, but how our vastly powerful democratic nation could have acted so ineffectually and deceitfully. -- Jeanne Carstensen

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Mission Accomplished: The Experts Speak, or How We Won the War in Iraq," by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky

In some ways the Iraq war feels like a relic of a bygone era. People are still dying, America's prestige and treasure continue to bleed into the sand, but the war has somehow become less newsworthy. It has migrated toward the back of the A section as the front pages fill up with headlines about Clinton, Obama and McCain. People apparently no longer want to hear about the war; they'd rather read about who will replace the war's author.

"Mission Accomplished" feels, at first, like the same kind of musty echo. Cerf and Navasky have assembled 200 pages of direct quotes from the "experts" who brought us the war, a mordant collection of the most hubristic, deluded, deceitful and plain wrong statements about Iraq ever made by Bush administration officials and their enablers. All the golden oldies are here, from the title of the book itself to Rumsfeld's "freedom is untidy" to Kenneth Adelman's prediction that the war would be a "walk in the park" to Cheney and McCain's prediction that the Iraqis would greet us as "liberators." Cerf and Navasky have also dug up a few forgotten and worthy B-sides, like former White House speechwriter David Frum's creepy assertion that "This 'rush to war' should really be seen as the ultimate 'rush to peace.'"

It's an upper-middle-brow bathroom book, full of a species of overly familiar and tragicomic one-liners. Readers may wish to do Sudoku puzzles instead of wallowing in memories of Ari Fleischer and WMDs. But readers who opt for "Mission Accomplished" may find that it pins them to their, um, seats. You can read it for the requisite five minutes, or 50. And should you linger, and find yourself borne back into the past, remembering what it was like to listen, helplessly, to the cheerleading, to cringe as a supposed liberal like Alan Colmes asked, "Should the people in Hollywood who opposed the president admit they were wrong?" you will also remember the alarm and outrage that ensued. You may turn past the front pages of the paper again, and notice that people are still saying things like this. Many of the book's quotes are of quite recent vintage, like "Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud," uttered by conservative commentator Deroy Murdock on Nov. 7, 2007. Still other bons mots will have to wait for the next edition, like those from one of George Bush's potential successors, who claims, repeatedly, that Iran is helping al-Qaida in Iraq. -- Mark Schone


Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Iraq Iraq War Middle East National Security

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••






Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •