BOOK REVIEW The fruit of a poisonous tree Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq by Jonathan Steele Reviewed by Mohammed A Salih
WASHINGTON - For those seeking different and deeper reasons why Iraq ended up
where it is today, other than the often-cited but somewhat cliched list of
blunders like the disbanding of the Iraqi army and dissolving of the Ba'ath
party, Jonathan Steele's Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq is a
His book is a moralistic indictment of Iraq's occupation by the United States
and Britain, arguing that it was doomed to failure from the beginning. An
award-winning journalist, Steele's extensive reporting from Iraq and the region
for years as a senior
foreign correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper gives him the credentials
to write on the subject authoritatively.
It is a convincing, well-argued account of the misery unfolding in large parts
of Iraq over the past five years, and Steele is a firm believer that all
mistakes emanated from the "original sin" of a misguided occupation.
"My thesis is more fundamental. The occupation was flawed from the start. No
matter how efficient, sensitive, generous and intelligent the US-led Coalition
Provisional Authority had been, it could not have succeeded," Steele says. "The
central problem was not that Americans made mistakes. The occupation itself was
US President George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair misconstrued
Iraqis' antipathy toward Saddam Hussein as an endorsement of an invasion, and
the population's presumed acceptance of an ongoing military presence.
Steele takes his readers on a long journey from one part of Iraq to another to
show how US-British insensitivity to Iraqi culture and their underestimation of
the country's nationalistic pride and Islamist fervor led to an increasingly
Said one Shi'ite man to Steele on the road that stretches from Baghdad to
Karbala: ''If al-Hawza [the Shi'ite religious and educational establishment]
orders us to turn ourselves to bombs, we can make the US leave Iraq. We say,
'Thanks to you for getting rid of Saddam, now goodbye'.''
Steele shows how reckless US actions in Fallujah turned the population against
it and how, in an attempt to retake control of the small town that became an
icon for all that was wrong with the occupation, created even more hatred and
He illustrates how US miscalculations turned an unknown cleric, Muqtada
al-Sadr, into a popular leader and symbol of anti-occupation resistance among
Shi'ites. Nightly home searches and the routinely abominable treatment of men
in front of their families by coalition soldiers further stirred the wrath of
Steele's interviews with many Iraqis before and after the war show how Iraqis -
some fervently and some cautiously - supported the removal of Saddam Hussein,
but most, if not all, were against the idea of having foreign armies present on
their soil for a long time. The similarities between post-2003 Iraq and Iraq
under British colonial rule are striking. Many of the same old colonial
attitudes - like racism and arrogance - and policies such as sectarian division
were wittingly or unwittingly still in place, Steele says.
The understanding that many officials in Washington and London had of the
complex nature of Iraqi society was pretty shallow. In the run-up to the war,
for example, Blair invited six experts on Iraq and international security to
discuss the situation. While the experts focused on proving to Blair that "Iraq
is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments
and don't imagine you will be welcomed", Blair, in a clearly detached mood,
exclaimed, ''But the man is uniquely evil, isn't he?'' in a reference to
Saddam. One wonders what could be the second-most irrelevant question Blair
In Washington, neo-conservatives were living in their own world, too. ''They
always wanted a prolonged occupation'' to put pressure on Iran and Syria,
establish military bases in Iraq and "send a message of dominance across the
Middle East", Steele writes.
The fact that about three-quarters of Iraq's population is Arab and Muslim
should have made the coalition think twice before deciding to stay after regime
change was achieved. Muslim Arabs, whether Shi'ite or Sunni, have had strong
feelings of resentment toward Western occupation ever since the time of the
Crusades. Years of colonialism and direct or indirect control of their lands
and resources and the persisting Israeli-Palestinian conflict had all created
an unfavorable view of the West among Arabs. Feelings of anger, humiliation and
shame at the hands of the West were common. The US and Britain might have taken
these feelings and sensitivities into consideration, but they did not.
Crucially, the coalition failed to comprehend Iraq's class politics, a major
source of division among the ranks of Shi'ites after the invasion, when many
poor urban Shi'ites joined Muqtada, the anti-US Shi'ite cleric. Instead, they
viewed Iraq in sectarian terms, with each sect presumed as a united bloc,
Steele points out.
The seeds of sectarian tensions in Iraq were sown during Saddam's reign and
especially his ruthless suppression of the Shi'ite uprising in the wake of
Kuwait War in 1991. Still, there were many mixed marriages and neighborhoods
where people coexisted peacefully.
Steele puts the bulk of blame on occupation policies ''that played a role,
though not the only one, in increasing Sunni-Shi'ite tensions, thereby
contributing to the appalling sectarian violence of the last few years". The US
distributed the 25 seats on the Iraqi Governing Council, a ruling body
appointed by US civilian administrator Paul Bremer, on a sectarian basis, as
were the ministerial portfolios in the future government.
Although one does agree with the reasonably compelling points Steele makes in
the book, he falls short of examining the important role of Iraq's neighbors
and how their involvement contributed to the situation.
He also engages in highly hypothetical predictions based on equally
hypothetical premises that are impossible to test. He argues that if the US had
withdrawn within a year or so after toppling Saddam's regime, there would have
been less bloodshed, and Iraq's political class "would have come forward
readily to work out a new social compact and form a government".
The fact is that Iraq witnessed several insurgencies by Kurds and Shi'ites
under its own nationalist governments from the 1960s to the 1990s. And they did
not revolt because Iraq was under foreign occupation. The same could have
happened after Saddam's fall due to sectarian and factional struggles over
power, territory and resources.
Steele also overlooks Kurdistan, and how US-British treatment of it could have
made a contribution to improving the situation in the rest of the country.
While Iraqi Kurdistan suffers from its own problems, like corruption and
mismanagement, it enjoys relative internal peace.
The Iraq depicted in Steele's book is a story of shattered dreams, broken
promises, gross mismanagement, countless tragedies and above all strategic
blunders, one after another.
Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq by Jonathan Steele.
Counterpoint (February 28, 2008). ISBN-10: 1582434034. Price US$26, 304 pages.