Thomas W. Collier
Review of Jonathan Steele, Defeat: Why
America and Britain Lost Iraq. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint,
2008. Pp. 294. ISBN 978-1-84511-629-3.
Jonathan Steele's answer to his
title's "why" is simply that they lost Iraq because they occupied
it. Never mind the many mistakes described in books with titles like
Fiasco, Squandered Victory, Losing Iraq, among
others. For Steele, "The occupation was flawed from the start ... it
could not have succeeded. The central problem was not that Americans
made mistakes. The occupation itself was the mistake" (1-2). Having
made that bold assertion, the author proceeds for nine chapters to
explain why he sees that the occupation was doomed and, more
interestingly, why America and Britain did not.
Steele, the senior reporter on international
affairs for the Manchester Guardian, has been to Iraq eight
times during the current war. Since the 1960s he has covered
conflicts in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as serving as bureau
chief for the Guardian in Washington and Moscow. Winner of
several journalism awards in Britain and America, he has also
published half a dozen books on international politics.
His broad experience, his easy access to officials, and his penchant
for talking to ordinary Iraqis make his a voice to be considered.
The first point Steele makes is that the
occupation could not have succeeded. He generalizes that
"Occupations are inherently humiliating .... A foreign army ...
needs to leave within weeks, or at most, months. Otherwise,
suspicions will quickly grow that the foreigners' real aims are
imperial"; since "the only exception to this rule in modern times
... the western occupations of Germany and Japan" (2) are unique,
each in its own way, "comparisons are absurd" (147). He specifies
that the occupation of "a Muslim country in the heart of the Middle
East" was particularly likely to fail in the case of Iraq because
"British colonisers invaded [that] country ... and assumed total
control in 1918.... So Bush and Blair were launching their attacks
on a nation that was unlikely to welcome being taken over again"
Steele's second point is that America's and
Britain's leaders did not understand the inevitability of their
occupation's failure and that they proceeded, as James Fallows
titled his 2006 book, Blind into Baghdad. Here Steele is on
firmer ground in dealing with Prime Minister Blair than with
President Bush. His chapter on Blair reveals that the prime minister
never asked for advice from the Foreign Office, held no
parliamentary hearings on Iraq, and ignored a cautionary letter from
fifty-two retired British diplomats predicting "that the occupation
of Iraq ...would meet serious and stubborn resistance" (159). Blair,
Steele concludes, "was set on going to war on Bush's side under any
circumstances" and so made Britain's "biggest foreign policy blunder
... since Suez" (160-1).
The key disappointment of the book is its failure
to explain President Bush's apparent change from an initial policy
of leaving Iraq "within weeks, or at most months," as Steele would
have recommended, to an indefinite occupation that has now lasted
for years. Steele is certainly not alone in this failure, but his
explanations are unoriginal: ignorance of Iraq's history;
underestimation of both Islamist and nationalist resistance to
Western dominance; disregard for public opinion expressed by Iraqis,
Americans, and America's allies; and pressure by neoconservatives
both inside and outside the administration for a long-term American
presence in the Middle East. All of these may be true, but they do
not tell why the statements about a brief occupation by senior
officers like General Tommy Franks of Central Command and Lieutenant
General Jay Garner of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian
Assistance quickly turned out to be wrong.
Steele concludes that "the exact trajectory of
what happened ... could not have been predicted... [but] the day on
which Bush decided to have an occupation was the day he ensured
defeat" (6) and quotes the Iraqi-American academic, Kanan Makiya
(Brandeis University), in declaring that "The first and biggest
American error was the idea of going for an occupation" (245). Many
may say that "conditions on the ground" have so improved that
Steele's defeat is now approaching victory, and that his next book
will be titled Victory: How America and Britain Won Iraq.
The University of Michigan