An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
My Other Websites
Sunday, March 19, 2023
Speaking of Iraq
On the 20th anniversary of Bush's invasion of Iraq, I thought I'd dust off some writings from the time, written for my online notebook before I got around to organizing a formal blog. (Not sure when that was, but I found a note about "new blog software" in January, 2005.) I later collected all of the political writings of the Bush years under the title of Last Days of the American Empire, and followed that up with three more volumes: on Obama's first and second terms, then an even longer one on Trump; I haven't gotten around to opening a file on the Biden years, partly because I briefly hoped I might be able to move on).
This starts with a couple earlier posts, but picks up on March 18, 2003, the day of the ultimatum that kicked off the war. I've picked out more pieces up to March 20, 2004: the one-year anniversary of the actual invasion. As history, this leaves something to be desired: I wasn't trying to document the war, just to register my reactions and thoughts as the war unfolded. So I missed lots of important things -- there's very little here on the WMD debate, nothing on "shock and awe" or "mission accomplished," just one passing reference to Paul Bremer and his ill-fated administration, lots of other things. I did write on the Jessica Lynch affair, but didn't think it was worth keeping here.
I skipped over entries on 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan -- which I've always regarded as the cardinal sin, the first gross error of many -- and the initial formulation of a Global War on Terror, all of which is essential background. The delusion that Afghanistan had been handled gave the war planners confidence to move on to Iraq. What they hadn't anticipated was that most people would see Iraq as disconnected from 9/11, which turned the hard sell of the war into an uphill fight.
The Feb. 2, 2004 entry starts to sketch out a "history of the U.S.-Iraq conflict," which I divided into "three major stages." I should have included a "stage 0" for the pre-1990 period. GHW Bush's decision to launch "a splendid little war" was not an arbitrary whim (although Thatcher's phrase was). Rather, it has been brewing since first Iraq and then Iran dropped out of the Baghdad Pact (CENTO), leaving the "regional defense pact" without any regional members. As I've stressed many times, wars don't just erupt: they are the result of repeated and cumulative failures. American contempt for Iraq dates back to the 1959 coup that split Iraq off from the American side in the Cold War.
Similarly, one cannot make sense out of the 2001 Bush invasion of Afghanistan (and its subsequent troubles, up to the Taliban sweeping into power before the US could fully withdraw) without looking back at history, especially the Carter-Zbigniew decision in 1979 to fund a jihadist insurrection against a communist-led coup: as boneheaded a decision as any American president has ever made, one that makes no sense unless you look back to the Vietnam War debacle for context, which itself looks back to Harry Truman's decision to turn against his WWII ally, the Soviet Union.
In all these cases, the common denominator is the notion that the preferred way of dealing with conflicts is to project greater force. Sure, there have been occasions where both sides have opted for some kind of diplomacy, or at least the mutual respect of détente. But after the Soviet Union dissolved, a significant faction of America's security "thinkers" organized to push the limits of power projection. The Global War on Terror was their baby, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There was plenty of evidence of what they were up to in the 1990s. Although I wrote little at the time, I was very critical of Clinton's handling of Iraq during that period, regarding it as the signal failure of his administration. Ironically, the Republican favored by most of these neocons (or "new vulcans") in 2000 was John McCain, but nearly all of them got jobs under Bush (or Cheney), allowing them to plot wars that were in the works well before Al Qaeda gave them a ready-made carte blanche. (Bush ordered a bombing run on Iraq in his first days, and seems to have decided to support the Northern Front in Afghanistan before 9/11 -- stories that were poorly reported, because they had become second nature.)
Although the writings below display much foreboding about the fate of Bush's misadventure in Iraq, the really serious problems emerged in the months just after the one-year anniversary (my cutoff date). Fallujah exploded, and initial American efforts to recapture it failed. More ominously, America's alliance with the Shiite clerics teetered, as the Sadr faction threatened to link up with the Sunnis in Fallujah. With the 2004 presidential campaign in full swing, Bush's agents dialed their punitive impulses back a bit, and concentrated in driving a wedge between the Shiite and Sunni faction, the old divide-and-conquer strategem that poisoned any chance of reconciliation and peace for years to come.
After Bush managed to win a second term, he sent the military in to level Fallujah, only to find the Sunni revolt explode all over the west and north of Iraq, with a newly-created Al Qaeda taking a staring role. Bush escalated, sending additional troops into the fight, something they billed as "the surge," which is now remembered as some kind of success, although for most of its intended duration produced nothing but more casualties. What did finally turn the tide was a diplomatic maneuver that turned the Sunni tribal leaders against the Al Qaeda militants, allowing the latter to be picked off. While bribe money had much to do with the turn, the real driver was the civil war the US had fomented, which allowed the US to offer protection to Sunnis not just from itself but from the Shiite majority.
While the hawks could spin this as some sort of victory, few if any Americans recognized it as such. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government eventually insisted that the US remove all of its troops, so Obama finally complied. A year later, most of northwest Iraq had revolted against Baghdad, joining northeast Syria in a self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). US troops were invited back by Iraq to fight ISIS, which they did, but under terms which gave Iraq's independent government effective control. Bush's dream of creating a new Texas-like petrostate had failed completely.
Then, of course, Afghanistan turned out even worse for the neocons. They had, by then, grown weary of losing battles over nations of minor importance. Without admitting any culpability, they harkened back to the fat days of the Cold War, and plotted to pivot to opposing traditional rival powers like Russia and China. You hear less about "hyperpower" and "unipolar moments" these days, but the same basic ideas hold sway: to stay safe, America has to impose its will and (certain parts of) its way of life in as much of the world as possible, while cordoning the rest into untouchable ghettoes (e.g., North Korea since 1953). You would think that their dismal track record -- aside from the big wars, we could talk about Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and much more -- would have forced a rethinking by now, but administrations of both parties are stuck in their mental rut. Even the Ukraine war is being touted as a major victory, although it still looks like a complete disaster to me.
I've done some light editing, mostly dropping bits that seem redundant and/or tangential (not indicated by ellipses, which strike me as clutter, although you're welcome to follow the links to the unadulterated pieces). New introductory and comment text is in italics, and inline expansions in brackets. Finally, I'm adding a selection of book roundup notes, which cover more history, both before and after.
We now know that Bush was looking for an excuse to attack Iraq the day of the 9/11 attacks. The evidence may have steered him toward Afghanistan, but the instinctive response to address the attacks by lashing out militarily was his -- not his alone, to be sure, but he alone was responsible for the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. Obama later tried to make a distinction between Afghanistan as "the right war" and Iraq as "the wrong war," but they were really the same war, the same instinct and decision for war, for the same reason: to punish anyone who refuses to roll over for American power. In that regard, Saddam Hussein was as culpable as the Taliban. Iraq, however, was a harder sell, because it had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks.
I'm still surprised that so little attention was paid to this piece when it came out. This was largely forgotten until September, 2002, when the Bush administration launched its campaign to promote the war. That's when Bush spokesman Andrew Card admitted, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
The main headline in yesterday's paper announced that Bush has decided to go to war against Iraq: that the US would commit 200,000 ground troops, and that Cheney was out of his foxhole and touring the Middle East to tell whoever needs to know what the US is going to do. Today there was not a single mention of it, no follow-up, no comments. I don't know which is more striking: the casualness with which one nation decides to destroy another, or the indifference of the people presumably represented by the first party.
Oddly enough, while I noticed the February piece, I wrote very little about the propaganda campaign until December, when I wrote quite a bit, starting with a lengthy, point-by-point critique of George Packer's piece, "The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq." Toward the end:
Arguably the worst thing the U.S. has done in the Arab world has been the containment policy against Iraq, which despite imposing great hardships on the Iraqi people has utterly failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein, and given the fact that the U.S. and its allies consciously chose to leave Saddam in power in 1991, this vicious policy appears to be little more than a cynical ploy in the run of American domestic politics. That this cruelty is condoned by the American populace is not something that the Arab populace can be expected to ignore.
The ultimate problem that liberals have in being hawks is not merely that their ideas are ill conceived but that they depend on people who are not liberals to carry them out. Bush's program to invade Iraq does not offer a shred of hope that anything positive might come out of it for the Iraqi people. It seems clear that Bush couldn't care less; that for him this is just about the U.S.'s prerogatives as the last great world power, and that it would be nifty if he could strut into his reëlection campaign with Saddam's shrunken head on his spear.
This begins with another long list of reasons war with Iraq is a bad idea. The Bush administration did notoriously little planning for a postwar Iraq, but I sniffed out one such leaked piece, before they tried to brighten it up with a coat of liberal democracy. One forgets, but at the time there was a lot of hype on how successful the US was at building democracies in Germany and Japan (more recent examples not offering much optimism, but even if you look back to Germany and Japan, you find much more luck than design).
After doing this I found a New York Times article with some details on U.S. plans for post-war Iraq, which sort of answers some of these questions. The plan is for something like an 18-month military occupation, with a two-headed military/civilian administration, and the whole thing (at least financially) dependent on securing the oil production areas so that the occupation and reconstruction can be paid for out of Iraqi oil production. There was nothing that I could see in the plan about democracy, there was an emphasis on keeping Iraq whole, and there was a plan to limit trials or executions of whatever to high government officials, so the game plan appears to be to try to keep the Baathist military dictatorship largely intact, while lopping off Saddam's head.
The scary thing about this plan is not that it's crazy but that it makes [just enough] sense. This more than anything else convinces me that they'll convince themselves that they can pull it off. That, of course, puts a lot more faith in Rumsfeld, the military, and the CIA than they've ever earned. (The article itself admitted that they'd have to do a lot better job than they did in Afghanistan.) It also depends a lot on whether the Iraqis wind up blaming Saddam for their defeat. Reading [John W] Dower's book on Japan [Embracing Defeat], it seems clear to me that the success of democratization there had less to do with what the U.S. did than with the changing consciousness of the Japanese -- the fact that a long period of war, with extreme sacrifices, led to utter defeat. Until Iraq falls it will be hard to gauge that, but I am very skeptical that most Iraqis will make that shift, and if I'm right, that means that every little thing that the U.S. fucks up (and you know that's going to happen, a lot) will just ratchet up the resistance. Which also leads us to how long the American public, mired in recession and war-hype and mounting debt will put up with Bush's kind of adventurism.
John W Dower has me thinking further about the question of how reproducible the post-WWII reconstruction of Japan is in Iraq. As he notes somewhere, Iraq isn't Japan, and for that matter Bush's US isn't FDR's 1945 New Deal.
One key element of Japan was its isolation. No other nation was remotely like it: none shared its language or religion or history. Iraq, on the other hand, is one of a dozen or so independent Arab nations, one of several dozen predominantly Muslim nations. The U.S. was able to control the media in Japan, and few outside of Japan had any real interest in the occupation there. Isolation was a function of the times: the world is much more closely, instantly in fact, connected today. This is also in large part a matter of means: the U.S. economic capacity to occupy and reconstruct a defeated country is now much reduced compared to post-WWII, regardless of the political will to do so. Also, note that Japan was required to pay the U.S. for seven years of occupation, a fact that they largely hid from their own people -- instead of making it a political issue, like the Germans after WWI. Even if U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Iraq can be paid for with Iraqi oil, that is one fact that cannot be kept secret, and will inevitably garner resentment and opposition.
This is the day the war started in earnest. I knew all along that when the day came, I'd use FDR's opening line. The analogy doesn't have to be perfect for the word to fit the bill. Neither attack was unprovoked, and neither was excusable. But the key line was the one that starts, "As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out . . . " Yet while the numbers may have been unpredictable, that the results would be disastrous for all concerned was pretty obvious at the time.
Yesterday, March 17, 2003, is another date that will live in infamy. On this date, U.S. President George W. Bush rejected the efforts and council of the United Nations, and the expressed concerns of overwhelming numbers of people throughout the U.S. and all around the world, and committed the U.S. to attack, invade, and occupy Iraq, to prosecute or kill Iraq's government leaders, and to install a new government favorable to U.S. interests.
That Bush has given Iraq's Saddam Hussein 48 hours to surrender in order to spare Iraq inestimable destruction is clearly intended to shift blame for this war to Saddam. While this particular ploy may have been intended cynically, we must be clear that this war would not be looming were it not for numerous acts that Saddam and Iraq have committed, including aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait, use of poison gas both against Iran and against the Kurdish minority within Iraq, and long-term efforts to obtain horrific weapons. We should also be clear that after a broad U.N. coalition drove Iraq out of Kuwait and brokered a cease-fire that left Saddam in power, his government failed to show good faith in implementing the disarmament specified in the cease-fire and U.N. mandates. Even now, Saddam's character is put to severe test, where he has within his power one last chance to put his country's welfare about his own. If he fails to do so, we must conclude not only that he is a long-standing war criminal, but that he is the essential cause for this war.
However, the proximate cause for this war lies squarely with the Bush administration, aided and abetted by the so-called "coalition of the willing." They are the ones who rejected concerted efforts by Iraq and the U.N. to complete and verify Iraq's mandated disarmament, who pushed the new agenda of regime change, and who locked this agenda into a final ultimatum. In pushing for regime change, Bush continued and escalated policies of previous U.S. presidents, especially Bill Clinton, during whose administration the U.S. worked deliberately to sabotage the inspections process, to promote Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, to prolong sanctions which inflicted great hardships on the Iraqi people, to engender much ill will. Especially complicit in this war is the Republican-led U.S. Congress, which passed a law in 1998 directing that U.S. policy toward Iraq work toward regime change, and Democrat President Bill Clinton, who signed that law, and who repeatedly ordered air strikes against Iraq. But the actual push to war, the setting of the time table and the issuing of the ultimatum, was squarely the responsibility of George W. Bush. In this act, which he was completely free not to do, Bush has placed his name high on the list of notable war criminals of the last century.
As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out, how many people will die or have their lives tragically transfigured, how much property will be destroyed, how much damage will be done to the environment, what the long-term effects of this war will be on the economy and civilization, both regionally and throughout the world. In launching his war, Bush is marching blithely into the unknown, and dragging the world with him. It is generally believed that U.S. military might is such that it will quickly be able to subdue resistance from Iraq's depleted and mostly disarmed military, and that the U.S. will quickly dispose of Saddam Hussein and his top people. However, it is widely speculated that over the course of U.S. occupation there will be continuing resistance and guerrilla warfare to burden the expense of occupation, in the hope of sending an exasperated occupation army packing. It is expected that the fury over the war will lead to new acts of terrorism directed against U.S. citizens and interests elsewhere in the world, possibly including the U.S. homeland. It is already the case that Bush's insistence on going to war, along with many other aspects of his foreign policy, has soured relations between the U.S. and a great many nations and people of the world, including many traditional allies, and that this situation will get progressively worse the longer and nastier the war and occupation goes on.
There is, I think, one hope to minimize the damage that inevitably comes with this war. This is for the Iraqi people, at least those who survive the initial onslaught, to roll over and play dead, to not oppose or resist invasion and occupation, and to play on the U.S.'s much bruited "good intentions" -- the dubious argument that the U.S. is invading Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. To do this they must not only not resist, they must collaborate to prevent others from resisting. Moreover, they must adopt the highest principles of their occupiers: embrace democracy and respect the civil rights of minorities. They should in fact go further: to denounce war, to refuse to support a military, to depend on the U.N. for secure borders, and not to engage in any hostile foreign relations. The reasons for this are twofold: in the long-run, these are all good things to do; in the short-run, they remove any real excuse for the U.S. to continue its occupation, and will hasten the exit of U.S. forces.
It is, of course, possible that the U.S.'s "good intentions" are cynical and fraudulent. Over the last fifty years, the U.S. has a very poor record of promoting democracy, and has a very aggressive record of promoting U.S. business interests. (And in this regard, Bush has proven to run the most right-wing administration in U.S. history.) Many of the same people who in the U.S. government promoted war on Iraq clearly have further names on their lists of enemies -- Syria, Iran, even Saudi Arabia -- and a number of fantastic scenarios have been talked up. But the aggressive projection of U.S. military force depends on having enemies that can only be kept at bay by such force. An Iraq, with no Saddam Hussein, with no military, with no way to threaten its neighbors, with its own people organized into a stable, respectful democracy, provides no excuse for occupation. If those conditions prevail, which is within the power of the Iraqi people to make happen, even the Bush administration would have to pull out.
There are, of course, other things that will be necessary to overcome the inevitable damage of this war. Presumably the war and occupation will at least get rid of one set of war criminals: Saddam Hussein and his crew. The other set of war criminals, the Bush administration in particular, need to be voted out of office. The consequences of Bush's foreign policy, even if they luck out and yield a democratic Iraq, bear extraordinary costs and engender international distrust at the same time Bush's tax policy bankrupts the U.S. government and undermines the U.S. dollar while Bush's domestic policies lay workers off and degrade the environment. But also the world community needs to come to grips with conflicts in ways that look beyond self-interest to provide systematic means to peacefully resolve conflicts that might otherwise turn into injustice and war. That Saddam Hussein was allowed to turn into a monster, the essential cause of Bush's Iraq war, was the consequence of a great many failures along the way -- serious mistakes on the part of nations, including the U.S., who promoted him politically, who armed him, who encouraged him to wage war with Iran, and so forth. The U.S. must recognize that it cannot alone solve conflicts such as these; the many nations of the world must in turn step up to the responsibility.
I believe that this is in fact the way the world is, unfortunately too slowly, moving: despite the immense amount of terrorism and war of the past few years, people all around the world are, in their hearts, actually moving to a much firmer realization of the need for peace, order, respect, fairness, and opportunity for all. The worldwide reaction of shock and horror at the toppling of the World Trade Center was one expression of this; the worldwide protest against Bush's Iraq war was another. The only way to have peace is to be peaceable.
If I were to write this today, I'd tone down the blame laid on Saddam Hussein, not because it was wrong but because it detracts from Bush's total responsibility for launching the war (and perhaps because the consequences of his decision have been even worse than I anticipated). I'd also be aware the the massive protests against the Bush war haven't been repeated since.
The one section I've sometimes regretted was the "play dead" suggestion. I double down on it here, but it's still just a thought experiment. As it turned out, most Iraqis did surrender peacefully, but it was inevitable that some would not, and when they resisted, Americans would prove incapable of isolating them, thus fomenting ever deeper resentment.
After writing yesterday's entry, I didn't know what to do with it. In this particular rush, it makes one feel very helpless trying to communicate with anybody. The notion that one's opinion matters in any way is sorely tested. But rather than try to polish what I wrote into something publishable -- again, what's the point? -- today I'll just add some explanatory notes. One thing that I find in my polemical writing is that the need I feel to compress very complex issues and to carefully balance the arguments tends to run cryptic. This (I promise) will be looser.
The only news report of significance since yesterday is Saddam Hussein's rejection of the ultimatum. That is no surprise; it is, in fact, what you'd expect of someone who thinks of himself as a warrior, which clearly Saddam does, and just as clearly is his great flaw as a politician. That he is putting his nation and his people at great risk, and to do so is part and parcel of his immorality, is both obviously true and is a judgment based on a standard of morality that is foreign to him. It should also be noted that almost all of our political and military folklore runs against that same standard of morality. Where yesterday I suggested that Iraq should roll over and play dead, and that Saddam should abdicate, it is easy to imagine how difficult and how unlikely that is by reversing the roles, by asking what we as Americans would do if some alien power (from outer space, no doubt; at least there are a lot of movies that we can reference as case examples) were to issue such an ultimatum to us.
Consider this, though: in rejecting the ultimatum, Saddam Hussein passed up a golden opportunity to remake himself as Neville Chamberlain, to assure "peace for our time" by caving in. Chamberlain is, of course, reviled for capitulating to Hitler at Munich, which was no doubt easier for him to do given that all he gave up was Czechoslovakia. Saddam would have had to put his own hide onto the silver platter.
I also read a report by Robert Fisk in Baghdad, noting that everyday life continues with little regard and very little imagination of the imminent war. I don't have any idea what this report beholds. On TV tonight Baghdad was described as eerily quiet, with more defenses in place.
It should be obvious that the main point of yesterday's writing is that both Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush are enemies of peace, that they are and should be viewed as criminals, and that neither one in any way justifies the other. It is, of course, Bush's view that his actions are justified by Saddam Hussein's past and present behavior, and it is important that we reject this claim.
The second point is that the best way out of this mess is still peace, and the more firmly and resolutely the people involved practice peace, the better. Unfortunately, with the U.S. on the warpath, the brunt of this responsibility falls on the Iraqi people. Admittedly, there is little reason to be optimistic at this stage. We know for certain that there will be resistance. We know that Saddam Hussein and his party do not believe in or practice peace. We know that jihadists like Osama Bin Laden do not believe in or practice peace. We also know that when faced with danger, military forces all the world over, all throughout history, kill and destroy unnecessarily, often deliberately, sometimes just inadvertently, which feeds a vicious cycle of resistance and retribution. We also know that alien occupation armies misunderstand things, communicate poorly, grow impatient and resentful, get spooked easily, and often with little provocation resort to force, sometimes viciously. Even if we accept the proposition that the U.S. has nothing but good intentions toward the Iraqi people, remaining peaceable is going to be a tall order. So while it's what I prescribe, it's not what I expect to happen.
As for the intentions, you tell me. One thing I've noticed is that over the last 2-3 weeks we hear more and more about how the U.S. will liberate the Iraqi people. Part of this seems to just be an attempt to push the argument for war over the top: to set some sort of requirement that only war can fulfill, as opposed to disarmament which was clearly being implemented by inspections. But it does set up some at least rhetorical expectations that can be tested by peaceable acceptance of occupation, embracing democracy, etc., which is part of the rationale for my prescription. If the rhetoric was different -- e.g., colonial exploitation, settlement -- it would be much harder to urge acquiescence. But I think that even Bush recognizes that long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq is not in the cards: that it is not something that the U.S. can even sustain the costs to maintain. Given this, it is expected that sooner or later Iraq and its natural resources will return to local control. Given this it is better that this happen within the framework of a democracy which can serve the broad interests of the people instead of through another exploitative strongman arrangement. Again, regardless of actual U.S. intentions, the rhetoric du jour provides an opportunity.
The point about peaceful acquiescence to occupation is also derived from my reading of the U.S. occupation of Japan, described in John Dower's book. It's clear to me that the key to the "success" of the reformation of Japan was that the Japanese people deeply wanted much of this reformation. I've written several skeptical accounts about why Iraq is much less likely to embrace similar reform, but the advantages of doing so are still clear. Iraq has pretty good prospects to develop if its substantial oil resources cannot be diverted to war and/or corruption, and the key to doing that is adopting peace and democracy (i.e., democratic socialism). One thing we really have no idea about is what the true feelings of the Iraqi people, but even if we did, the real question is more like how will they break when the effects of the war and invasion become manifest. In the case of Japan, the Japanese people up to the day of surrender would, if polled, no doubt have remained resolute, but once the Emperor surrendered, their exhaustion and resignation became manifest, as did their assignation of fault for the debacle to Japan's militarists. It is likely that some such effect will appear in Iraq as well -- eight years of war with Iran, followed by defeat in Kuwait and twelve years of crippling sanctions, the Iraqi people have much to blame on Saddam Hussein. Whether they in fact do so is the short-term question; not clear that they will do so, given that the U.S. is also responsible. Then there is the longer-term question, whether U.S. occupation will itself generate resentment to the extent of lengthy guerrilla resistance, and the answer there may largely depend on how the short-term question is answered. Which we'll only know once Iraq sees the destruction of the war and feels the sense of defeat or liberation as the U.S. occupation moves into place.
I guess the war is under way now. Life in Wichita is not affected in any serious way. This is, of course, most Americans' experience of war: as news, as entertainment, as something that happens far away, something that you can bemoan or cheer but which doesn't directly affect you. The immediacy of the media somehow makes us feel personally involved in events that happen on the far side of the world, like we have a vital interest there, yet the distance insulates us from the consequences of actions done in our name.
I guess the war is coming along swimmingly: people killed on both sides, buildings blown up, oil wells set afire, Saddam still smiling on TV. Numerous antiwar protests yesterday, including a small one in Wichita, which as much as anything else was an opportunity to blow off a little steam. This is going to be a long haul. There is no chance right now that the U.S. will change course, and little need to convince anyone else. On the other hand, it is important to remember that George W. Bush is responsible for this war, that this war was not in any way necessary for the safety or security of American citizens, and that it was done in utter contempt of the United Nations and most people around the globe. But then we all know that, right?
Read the "Letter from Baghad" piece in The New Yorker, which only reinforces the point that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is going to be resisted and resisted and resisted, and that eventually the U.S. will get tired of it and leave. At least unless it provokes terrorism elsewhere, which gives the U.S. excuse to make war on Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and whoever else is on Ariel Sharon's (err, George W. Bush's) enemies list.
Another thing that occurs to me is that all this talk about how the U.S. is liberating Iraq, with nicely posed pictures of happy Iraqis, etc., has us entering a wormhole where the other end is Vietnam. During the Johnson administration, all we heard about was how we had to stand by our friends in Vietnam, save them from communism, etc. Nothing but moral high ground, when in fact -- a fact that became naked with Henry Kissinger -- the war was about projecting American power. That's exactly what the war against Iraq is about too, and trying to wrap it up and palm it off as something else is disingenuous to say the least. More important, it's a trap: all these friends the U.S. is recruiting now are going to be liabilities in the future, people who will wind up wondering why the U.S. double crossed them when the U.S. never really gave a shit about them anyway.
The war grinds on. The fantasy that expected the Iraqis to roll out the red carpet for their American liberators has been dashed. Nobody expects that Iraq will be able to repulse the U.S. invasion, but the level and form of resistance pretty much guarantees that eventually the U.S. will leave Iraq without having accomplished anything more notable than the perverse satisfaction of serving up Saddam's head on some platter.
As I said earlier, the level of resistance will be telling. If you want a rule of thumb for neocolonialist wars of occupation, it's that once you can't tell your friends from your enemies in the native population, you're fucked. At its simplest level, that's because the occupiers get nervous and make mistakes. The mistakes, in turn, compound, pushing more and more people from the friendly side to the hostile side. That in turn reinforces the nervousness, the mistakes, the alienation. In turn, the resistance gets bolder; as this happens, the occupation digs in, becoming more brutal, vicious, capricious. The high-minded rhetoric is exposed as pure hypocrisy, and the occupation becomes more nakedly about nothing more than power. Such wars become vastly unpopular, and eventually the occupier has to cut its losses and go home. This is what happened in Vietnam, and we're going to be hearing a lot more about the similarity as this war bogs down.
So, let's face it, the U.S. war against Iraq is a colossal failure. The only question remaining is how long it will take the U.S. to give up and get out, and how much destruction the U.S. will leave in its wake. So remember this: This war did not have to happen. No one who has died, been injured, been captured, been terrorized by this war had to suffer. This only happened because of one mad tyrant: George W. Bush. Even today, if sanity were to suddenly overcome him, all he'd have to do is cease fire and order the troops home. Every day, every minute that he does not do this just adds to the grossness of his crime.
The press, unable to recognize a quagmire before they're stuck a couple years, or perhaps afraid to jinx the occupation, never warmed up to the Vietnam analogy. Perhaps because the neocons spent the last couple decades lecturing us that reason the US was forced to withdraw wasn't because the war was going badly, but because the hippies back home didn't have the will to see it through.
There hasn't been much to say lately about the war. The notion that Iraq would just lie back and enjoy it, of course, is no longer in play. But once you get past the fantasies, the evidence seems to favor both pro-war and anti-war interpretations. The basic difference is not the evidence -- it's how much war you can stand. Those of us who oppose the war can point to overwhelming, damning evidence of irreversible damage to all sides, and can assert with certainty that if the war continues and most likely escalates we can only expect more and more irreversible destruction. We can also argue with compelling logic that the cycle of aggression, resistance, and escalation is a hopeless whorl that will suck all sides into one hell or another, regardless of whether the aggression ultimately fails, as in Vietnam, or even if it "succeeds" -- the only U.S. example I can think of here is the conquest of the many Native American tribes.
I can't speak for the pro-war interpretation, but the media does plenty of that. I don't doubt that the U.S. is making significant progress toward completing its conquest of Iraq. I don't doubt that the U.S. will prevail, at least in the limited sense of securing the ability to go anywhere and do anything they want in the country. But I also don't have any idea how much firepower and manpower will ultimately be required to do so, how many Iraqis will die in the process, or how much of the country will be viable afterwards. And I don't have any idea how many Iraqis will flock to support their new U.S. masters. The latter is especially important, because without significant active Iraqi cooperation U.S. occupation will be a nightmare. And even then, such cooperation will force a schism within the Iraqi populace that will long tear at Iraq's social fabric, and which, if/when Iraq reverts to form, may result in many of our Iraqi "friends" seeking asylum in the U.S. (Which is where most of our Vietnamese and Cuban "friends" wound up living.)
Pretty much everyone agrees that one of the side-effects of the Iraq war will be more terrorism in the U.S. Few people take the time to recall that, until 9/11 , the most destructive terrorist to come out of the Gulf War was Timothy McVeigh. (Now, of course, the answer to that quiz is George W. Bush.) I've often said that I think the threat of Al Qaeda/Arab terrorism is much overrated -- not that there is no risk, but that the real risk doesn't warrant such desperate measures as the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that in fact the risk could be significantly lessened if the U.S. were to start to act decently, especially regarding Israel/Palestine. But one thing I do worry about is how these wars work to generate domestic right-wing terrorists, and even more so how they reinforce right-wing tendencies toward racism, militarism, and plain old viciousness. One thing we see throughout U.S. history is one war leading to another, often with pronounced swings to the right in the postwar period, such as the Red Scare after WWI and McCarthyism after WWII. (It took a few years for the sting of defeat in Vietnam to wear off and let Reagan in, but in many ways that was the worst.)
The fears of Iraq generating future terrorism have mostly faded, aside from a few ISIS-related incidents much later, and (of course) the occasional war-damaged U.S soldier going berserk.
It turned out that the video reacted to here was staged, to imply that Iraqis were welcoming American troops as liberators, which wasn't the case at all.
I have to admit that I found myself enjoying the video of Iraqis dancing on Saddam Hussein's statues. The rest of the day's news is harder to evaluate, and nothing that's happened gives me any second thoughts about the fundamental evilness of the Bush War. In particular, I don't think that any American opponent of this war expected Saddam Hussein's government to hold out against the American war machine. Nor do we feel any sympathy or remorse for Saddam Hussein himself or his government. On the other hand, the practice and effects of this war have proven to be as horrible as expected -- of course, it feels even worse, since no matter how well you may have conceived of it, the actual events hit you far more viscerally.
Still, even though much has happened, we still have very little real understanding of what has happened, let alone what it will all mean. Another thing that we predicted was that this would be a nest of lies and blatant propaganda, and while that much is certainly true, it will take quite a while for honest people to sort this out. It is, of course, clear that the lens that we are looking through in the US is far different from what people in other countries are seeing.
There was a period back in the Afghanistan war when the Northern Alliance started reeling off a quick series of victories -- not so much that they were defeating the Taliban in confrontations as that the Taliban was high-tailing it out of the cities, allowing Herat, Kabul, and Kandahar to fall in quick succession. The hawks then made haste to trumpet their victory and to dump on anyone who had doubted the US in this war. Back then, I referred to those few weeks as "the feel good days of the war." Well, we had something like that in Iraq, too, except that use of the plural now seems unwarranted. So mark it on your calendar, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, was the feel good day of the Iraq war. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has proceeded apace, but there seems to be much less to feel good about. One big thing was the killing of the bigwig shia collaborators that the US started to promote, combined with the unwillingness of other shia bigwigs to collaborate. One of the problems with this is that it suggests that the US, as always, is looking for religious leaders to control the people -- which in turn threatens to roll back the one thing Saddam had going for his regime, which was that it was strongly secular. The fact is, if you want to introduce something resembling liberal democracy in Iraq, you have to promote secularism. (Of course, given the contempt that Bush has for liberal democracy in the US, it's hard to believe that he really wants that.)
Bigger still is the whole looting thing, as well as mob reprisals against Baath leaders, which threaten to turn into the much predicted Iraqi-on-Iraqi warfare. The looting itself basically means that what infrastructure the US somehow managed not to destroy will be taken down by Iraqi mobs. The likelihood that those mobs are anything other than just isolated hoodlums is small, but collectively the damage that they inflict is likely to be huge. And given how unlikely it is that the US, its allies, and the rest of the world who were so blatantly disregarded in this whole affair, are to actually pay for anything resembling real reconstruction, this is just digging an ever deeper hole. While right now, given that there is still armed (if not necessarily organized [this is where Rumsfeld said, "stuff happens"]) resistance to the US, it's hard to see how the US could keep order even if it wants to (a mixed proposition), but failure to do so is already setting the US up as responsible for the looting, and adding to the already huge responsibility that the US bears for the current and future misery of the Iraqi people. And when the US does start to enforce order, what is bound to happen? More dead Iraqis. And who's responsible for that? The US. If this had just happened out of the blue, I might be a bit sympathetic, but this is exactly what we had predicted as the inevitable given the US course of action.
So happy last Wednesday. That's very likely to be the last one for a long time now.
Watching some Iraqi politicos on TV the other day, it occurs to me that one difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that Iraqi political figures are much more sophisticated. By this, I may just mean that the US will be dealing with people who know better how to deal with Americans. It may be as simple as that they speak better English, but in general there's a bit of hope for shared knowledge and understanding. How much of a difference that will make is hard to say, but it's something. The other advantage that Iraq has is that it has the raw and human resources to, theoretically, build a viable economy. On the other hand, between Iraq's wars against Iran and Kuwait, the long period of economic sanctions and other depredations by the Baath party leaders and their predecessors, an astonishing amount of improverishment has been inflicted on Iraq, and overcoming that will be a huge task. There is also the question of Iraq's debts, which with interest are large enough to be unmeetable. (It's been proposed that much or all of the debts incurred by Sadaam Hussein should be written off as "odious" debts -- the idea there is that anyone who loaned Saddam money deserves to lose it.) The question of whether the US is going to hand Iraq some sort of bill for the costs of destroying it, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't even been raised, but that's often been the case (e.g., for the US occupation of Japan).
On the other hand, watching Iraqi mobs looting, and hearing reports of revenge killings and accidental killings and all that, it sure doesn't look good. I don't know what the extent of looting damage actually is, but it merely adds to the considerable damage inflicted by the warfare, primarily by the US military. And again, since the US has no business being there, this all goes on the US tab. The sacking of the museums is particularly appalling, but when you look at what has happened to government offices, the palaces, etc., it becomes clear that a vast amount of our ability to ever understand and eventually manage Iraq has vanished with it. It's already being admitted now that we will never get an accurate death toll -- among other things this means that there will always be disputes over numbers, which will make it all the harder to reconcile anything in the future, but it also means that we will never fully be able to map out this destruction in human terms. One thing I would dearly like to see is a systematic international (neutral) attempt to assess the physical and human damage that this war has inflicted.
I haven't written much about the US in Iraq, probably because it has all unfolded so predictably. Iraq is caught between two pincers: one is the inevitability of Iraqi resistance, the other the arrogance and ineptness of the American occupation. The former was presaged by the 1991 war, and by the long, cruel regime of sanctions that followed, punctuated by further bombing attacks, which only had the effect of punishing the Iraqi people for leaders who in turn were able to use the siege to oppressively tighten their control. Those policies, pursued by three US presidents for more than a decade, implemented with indifference, indeed total contempt, for the Iraq people, have specifically destroyed any possible credibility that the US might have claimed to be seen as a liberator or benefactor of the Iraqi people. But even beyond the history of specific US policies dealing with Iraq, US policies elsewhere in the Arab world and throughout the third world have made it seem highly implausible that the US can be trusted to do anything of long-term benefit to the Iraqi people.
What's happened since Iraqi resistance emerged has only served to make it appear stronger and more viable -- not, of course, in the sense that they can hope to drive the US out but in anticipation that they can make it painful enough that the US will eventually choose to quit the struggle. The US has managed over the last 20+ years to fight wars with so few casualties that now none are expected, which gives them a very low pain threshold. The response is both to button up and to lash out, both of which make US forces appear to be more alien and more hostile, while at the same time making them less effective as security forces and less responsible as administrative forces. Recent sabotage of oil and water pipelines are something we can expect to see regularly, especially as long as the Iraqi people hold the US responsible for infrastructure failures.
On the other hand, the US appears to be nearly clueless in its occupation. There are many reasons for this: most obviously that the US military's core competency doesn't extend far beyond the art of blowing things up. Even logistical support of US troops seems to be a strain -- the death of a US soldier due to heatstroke is a particularly poignant sign of failure and incompetence. Language (the need to mediate virtually every communication through translators) is obviously a huge problem, which burdens every effort to work with and through the population. And the lack of security makes it all but impossible to bring in civilian help to repair critical infrastructure. But these are the sort of problems that any occupier would face, even one that could reasonably be viewed as benign.
The US faces far deeper problems, which are rooted in the delusions that the Bush administration entertained in selling the war and in conceiving of its solution. As an MBA, Bush should be aware that the single most effective prerequisite for selling anything is the ability to project conviction. The rationales for the Iraq war never had much merit, and the risks associated with the war have always loomed large, but Bush et al. somehow managed to convince first themselves and then key parts of the power structure that their rationales were sound and that the risks were manageable. In doing so they have become trapped in their own lies and delusions. Most obviously, this is why they didn't plan for contingencies that they had to discount in order to sell their case. And now, given the actual level of Iraqi resistance, and given the collapse of their delusions about popular and international support for their war and occupation, about all that Iraqi oil that was supposed to pay for the venture, they find themselves swamped in a mess that offers no way out.
But this gets worse for Bush, because Iraq isn't the only thing he and his posse are deluded about: Bush's handling of crises in America has faired little better. After all, the stories about blackouts and water shortages and snipers aren't all postmarked Baghdad. Bush's ideological straightjacket not only doesn't work in Iraq -- it doesn't even work here. The examples are numerous -- far too numerous to go into here. But some idea of the enormity of the problem, and how clueless Bush is regarding it, can be gleaned from a fairly simple and self-evident rule of thumb: that the only viable direction for change is toward greater equality and freedom. Freedom alone he might be able to handle, since freedom suggests the right to do what one wants, and Bush definitely likes the idea of doing what one wants -- so long as "one" is Bush or at least a big campaign donor. But that sort of freedom inevitably tramples on the freedom of everyone else; it's only in moving toward greater equality that more people benefit from the system and thereby become part of the system. The core fact is that without the earnest participation of workers nothing really works in complex technological economies, and that everyone who inhabits those societies depends on their ability to trust those workers. What we're seeing in Iraq is a society where trust has been completely undermined by the presence of a foreign, hostile military culture. In the US we rarely see such active hostility, but the indifference and contempt of those who hold power toward those who merely work (in contrast to those who move capital) is spreading rot more slowly, but just as surely.
The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad today, and last week's bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, are especially troubling acts. Both are attacks on groups that might have worked to mediate and ameliorate the US occupation. Consequently, they serve to make it all the harder for the US to withdraw at all gracefully. It's hard to tell what the intent might be in selecting such targets, and it's far from clear that there is any real coordination between these bombings and other more clearly targeted forms of resistance. But the suggestion is certainly raised that if/when the US withdraws there will be a bloody civil war in Iraq. (That shouldn't come as a surprise; indeed, that's always been a potential risk in this conflict, which to my mind was one of those worst case scenarios where the sheer magnitude of the downside swamps out its improbability. Not that it ever was all that improbable: in effect there pre-existed a civil war truce between the Kurds and the Baathist regime, which could be destabilized at any time; it's also worth noting that Afghanistan is already in a state of civil war, only marginally realigned with the US intervention.)
The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad came as a surprise, but the post facto comments by Bush and Ashcroft couldn't have been more rote. We are hopelessly mired in ruts of rhetoric, and nothing is likely to change unless one can start to recognize real changes in the world around us. That the UN bombing came as a surprise may just be an illusion based on the recent war debate, where Bush and Powell failed to secure UN blessing for the US invasion of Iraq. From that, and the fact that the US and UK went ahead and invaded anyway, we tend to think that the UN is a different, broader, fairer, more reasonable force than the US/UK "coalition" -- and we tend to see it as a much better alternative: that handing the occupation over to the UN would be more welcome to the Iraqis, and would permit a more stable, less poisoned reconstruction effort. Still, try to imagine how the UN is viewed by Iraqis: the UN supported the 1991 war; the UN imposed the sanctions that have gone so far to strangle the Iraqi economy; the UN weapons inspection teams never certified that Iraq had eliminated its WMD, thereby prolonging the sanctions and providing excuses for the US to further punish and ultimately to invade and occupy Iraq. How wrong might ordinary Iraqis be to view the UN as US stooges? In the US, we find it easy to dismiss this argument because we're aware of the long-running right-wing political critique of the UN, which has basically become dominant with the ascendancy of the neocon hawks.
Most of this long post is a thought-experiment on how a more thoughtful occupation of Iraq might work out, not least by permitting its own dissolution. Before getting into that, I wrote:
It is impossible to know what is really going on in Iraq, at least in terms of assessing the "progress" and prospects for the U.S. occupation. Most news reports depict a level of resistance that is sufficient to seriously disrupt American plans. Moreover, it seems likely that this level of resistance can be sustained indefinitely -- at least as long as the U.S. is a convenient target. On the other hand, U.S. officialdom is strenuously trying to paint a rosier picture. But, then, the credibility of U.S. officialdom has been strained so severely that even mainstream media, which usually devours whatever is fed them, is looking askance. Or maybe they just smell blood; they are, after all, good at that.
To some extent this is one of those half-empty/half-full divisions. What is generally agreed on is that the current state -- the "half" if you will -- is unstable and transitional. The disagreement is on where it is going. Your half-fulls here figure that when the occupation is able to get Iraq into some sort of functional state -- once the infrastructure works and the oil flows and the economy starts moving and ordinary Iraqis start to see some tangible improvement in their lives -- the resistance will fade away. On the other hand, your half-empties will argue that the resistance will keep most or all of those things from happening, and that by doing so it will harvest enough resentment against the occupation that it will sustain itself, until eventually the U.S. gives up and leaves.
This division has less to do with the available facts than with a pair of perceptions. The half-fulls believe that the resistance is the work of a small and finite number of intractable evil-doers, who merely need to be drawn out and dispatched; the half-empties believe that the resistance is the inevitable fruit of occupation, and that any efforts to suppress the resistance will only deepen it. The half-fulls also believe that the U.S. has the skills and good will and generosity to make the occupation work for the betterment of the Iraqi people; the half-empties have grave doubts about those very skills, not to mention what all that American good will and generosity did for ordinary Iraqi people even before the invasion. The half-fulls, of course, believe that even if their optimism has been a bit excessive, there is no choice but for America to "stay the course" until a better Iraq emerges, and see withdrawal as not only callous but ultimately as tragic for the Iraqi people. The half-empties, on the other hand, figure that even as bad as the occupation has already proved itself to be, continuing it is only going to make it worse, and that even though immediate U.S. withdrawal would probably lead to short-term chaos and possibly to long-term tyranny, those risks are preferable to the certain failure of occupation.
Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003, with the capture of Saddam Hussein, was the second feel good day of the Iraq war. The first, of course, was the day the US entered Baghdad, resulting in the staged toppling of Saddam's statue. Both were days when Saddam's tyranny fell; both were days when the fall of Saddam at least temporarily eclipsed the tragedy of Bush's war. Of course, that says as much about the media as it does history: we focus so much on immediate tangible events that the broader context, "the big picture," gets lost, much as the moon doesn't actually set each morning -- it just gets overwhelmed by the relative brightness of the sun. Still, the sun does inevitably set, returning us to the dim light of the moon. What's left for Saddam Hussein is just to pick over the bones, of which there are plenty. Removing Saddam Hussein from power is the one positive accomplishment of the Bush War. It's not a justification, just a welcome respite.
The local paper had several pieces, plus one of Randy Schofield's me-too editorials and even a Crowson cartoon, on how best to bring Saddam to justice. Or more precisely, who gets to execute him. One of the pieces was a chart of possible courts, which were mainly distinguished by which have the option of capital punishment. That seems to disqualify the World Court. (One option missing from the list is turning him over to Iran, which can safely be counted in the pro-capital punishment camp.) I don't care much one way or the other. After some twists and turns, I finally came to the opinion that I'm opposed to capital punishment -- ultimately because I don't want to give governments the option of killing citizens, and I don't want to deny citizens the right not to be killed by their government, even when they have seriously transgressed against their fellow citizens. Abuse is obviously a worry here, but even if somehow abuse could be guaranteed against, the mere option of capital punishment distorts discussion over how to punish and how to secure against further crimes.
But that's just the general principle. In the matter of Saddam Hussein, I don't care much one way or the other. In defense of not executing him, I'll point out that there are many other people who have committed comparable crimes without even getting prosecuted -- Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are good examplesr. (George W. Bush is another, and his father wasn't much better -- merely less foolish.) Stalin was another, and the list goes on and on. For such people, the most critical thing we can hope for is exposure -- and ironically, keeping Saddam alive is more likely to facilitate exposure than summarily killing him. On the other hand, Saddam has been pretty much exposed already, and he is pretty much history at this point. Killing him is not likely to make much difference one way or the other. Maybe it would make him a martyr, but it's hard to make much of a martyr out of such an unprincipled lout. Certainly it would close one door on history -- the finalitude that argues against most capital executions is a plus here.
Back when I was kicking the principle around in my mind, I conceded that there was one case where I did approve of capital punishment: when Romania revolted against Ceausescu, they executed the dictator and his wife (a bad figure in her own right), then outlawed capital punishment. That put a stake in the heart of Ceausescu's cult of personality, depriving his diehard supporters of any reason to continue the war, and no doubt saving many lives. It also put an end to any temptation to further purge Romania's communist leadership. And it set a clear standard that separated the true monsters from even their rank and file supporters. I'm willing to accept that Saddam was such a monster that he should be singled out for execution. But it is a sobering thought that the ultimate price he might pay is no more than that paid by thousands of ordinary Iraqis mowed down in Bush's quixotic effort to remake the Middle East in the image of West Texas. And whereas killing Ceausescu brought Romania's revolution to a definitive close, killing Saddam will have no real effect on Iraq's resistance to US occupation -- the killing will continue there, even though the prime reason why the US started this war is no longer in play. The only hope we have for a third feel good day in Iraq is if Bush decides that Saddam's skull is victory enough.
The Americans soon handed Saddam over to a Shiite-controlled court to be tried for crimes against their fellow sectarians. They made quick work of him.
Last week I saw a clip on TV where Howard Dean criticized John Kerry for voting for the 2002 Iraq War resolution and voting against the 1990 Iraq War resolution. Dean argued that Kerry had gotten it backwards. I don't know what Kerry's reply (if any) was. Lately, Kerry has been arguing that he voted in favor of the 2002 resolution because he wanted to help make George W. Bush's threat of force against Iraq more credible to Saddam Hussein. That seems naive, at least as regards Bush, who has turned out to be the much graver threat to world peace. But the more interesting question is whether Kerry still defends his 1990 vote. He could plausibly contend that had he prevailed in 1990 none of the following events would have transpired. However, he's unlikely to do so, because the 1990 war is now conventionally viewed as a right cause. [Or at least it's viewed as the politically savvy choice for a Democrat, as both Clinton and Gore supported the war, and won the nomination in 1992. Nearly all of the serious 2004 Democratic candidates voted as Kerry did, as did the junior senator from New York, waiting her turn to run in 2008.] Dean, for instance, seems to view it as a triumph of measured, multilateral defense of international law, even though it left a festering scar. The Neocon hawks, in turn, saw it as a mere half-victory, demanding a second round of war. Only the Pragmatists, which would include the ruling Saudi and Kuwaiti families, saw it as wholly satisfactory: an extension of their license to rule and exploit.
It's unsettling that the two more prominent opposition party critics of Bush's conduct of the Iraq War -- and Wesley Clark would certainly make it three -- can't even settle on what went wrong, or why. Indeed, the more theories you read about why the U.S. undertook this war, the more confusing their stories get. A big part of this is due, of course, to the current Bush administration: the reasons they give -- the WMD threat, the war on terrorism, the liberation of Iraq -- are far and away the easiest to discard. But the bigger problem is that, at least in the U.S., the search for reasons has shown a blind eye both to history and to structure and dynamics of domestic political debate in the U.S. I want to propose a framework here to help us sort out the real causes of this war.
The history of the U.S.-Iraq conflict should be broken down into three major stages:
The build-up to the 1990 war was critical to everything that followed. It is important to remember that this debate occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War, at a time when significant disarmament was on the table -- this was a time when even politicians could be heard talking about a "peace dividend." The net effect of the decision to go to war was that the U.S. military saved itself by discovering a new enemy. The antiwar debate at the time was centered not on what Iraq had done, but on what role the U.S., weary and battered by the long and brutal battle against Communism, should take in the coming, undivided world. The Bush administration was tactically split -- the "pragmatists" happy to act as mercenaries as long as their Saudi buddies footed the bill, the "neocons" itching for the U.S. to take advantage of its victors' spoils in the Cold War. The pragmatists won the war, but it was George H.W. Bush himself who ceded the post-war to the neocons, by his hard sell of Saddam Hussein as "another Hitler." In doing so, his "failure" to prosecute the war all the way to Baghdad -- the logical end expected by an American public who grew up on WWII and Roosevelt's insistence on Hitler's unconditional surrender -- cast him as the new Neville Chamberlain. Republican etiquette, of course, didn't dwell on such comparisons, but Democrats like Al Gore didn't feel compelled to be so delicate.
Given that the 1990 war left the villainized Saddam Hussein in power, containment of Iraq and eventual "regime change" remained on the agenda -- a "make work" program for the U.S. military and spook agencies. Bush, having hung the Hitler tag on Saddam, didn't dare try to negotiate a resolution that would have left Saddam in power. Clinton soon found that he could always score safe points by bombing or badgering Iraq: the containment and impoverishment of Iraq cost him nothing politically, either viz. the Republicans or viz. America's sordid allies in the region. The irresistible impulse of Republican rhetoric, in turn, moved them ever more under the neocon spell. This is the period when it became commonplace to talk about the U.S. as "the world's only superpower" -- and what's the good of being a superpower if you can't boss other countries around?
Having failed to stop the march to war in 1990, the antiwar movement lost its opportunity to demilitarize America. A big part of the problem that they ran into was that much of the argument against war was based on fear of a Vietnam-redux quagmire. The ease of the initial military triumph over Iraq seemed to put those fears to rest, even though the triumph was partial, and portended a long war of containment. The latter was largely unchallenged in American political discourse: the universal acceptance of Saddam's pariah status precluded any resolution that would have left him in power, while the war took place largely out of sight, costing nothing in U.S. casualties, and largely tolerated by the U.N. and all other world and regional powers.
The net effect of the villainization of Saddam Hussein, the build-up of U.S. military forces aimed at his containment, the indifference of the American citizenry to the human tragedy caused by sanctions, and the increasingly desperate desire to assert America's superpower status -- challenged and inflamed by Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- led directly to the second Bush administration's resolve to invade and occupy Iraq. Bush was also much impressed by how easily the U.S. military had achieved apparent victory in Afghanistan -- an assessment which now seems to have been premature and at risk.
Note that nowhere in this was any consideration given to the difficulty of building stable economies and popular governments, other than to keep the whole question out of the public eye. During the 2000 campaign, Bush had developed a critique of "nation building," and had talked quite a bit about how the military should only be used to destroy the enemy, and not for rebuilding. Bush changed his mind when success looked easy, but his crew (especially Rumsfeld) didn't, and they tripped each other up. Still, there was nothing in the Republican view of the world that could have worked. (Peter Beinart tried flipping this, arguing that liberals could do the job, but he, too, was wrong. See his book, below.)
This is my summary at the end of year one, with another ten or twenty to come, depending on where you want to slice the cake. (As of today, there are still American troops in Iraq, as advisers in case the ISIS revolt flares up again, and in Syria, presumably for the same reason but it's hard to tell as the US is also still opposed to the Syrian government.) One thing I should stress is that when I wrote "it could have been a lot worse," within three months it did in fact get a lot worse: Fallujah was lost to Sunni insurgents, and East Baghdad, controlled by the Sadr faction of Shiites, was also in revolt, and threatening to ally with Fallujah. That crisis was narrowly averted by turning the two factions against each other, so for the next several year civil war became a more pressing problem for most Iraqis than the inept US occupation, increasingly isolated in the Green Zone and operating opaquely through Iraqi intermediaries. Also on the near horizon was the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
Demonstrations yesterday marked the first anniversary of the Bush War in Iraq. Many observers and pundits have marked this anniversary by trying to sum up what the war has accomplished or wrought. This is, of course, difficult to do, not least of all because the war is nowhere near over, but also because we have so little reliable information about what has happened, or why. We are still deluged with spin: the hawks are as hawkish as ever, the doves are as dovish as ever, and an awful lot of what has happened can be taken to vindicate whatever predispositions you have. That's certainly true from where I peer out at the world. And you've no doubt already heard what Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer and Richard Perle and their ilk are saying about the subject.
We have some answers to those questions now, but even though we can cite precise figures for Americans sacrificed and much rougher figures for Iraqis, the only thing that we can really be sure of is that today's figures will be short tomorrow. The fact is that Bush is still marching blithely into the unknown, and he's dragging us with him. I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the state of the war and its impact on the world today. But I will jot down a few quick observations:
Still, one year is a short time, and only a tiny percentage of all of the ultimate consequences of Bush's wars have emerged. Just to take one example, in the 1990 Iraq war far fewer US soldiers were killed than this year, but the set of longer term illnesses and maladies that ultimately afflicted US soldiers in that war has now taken its toll on something in excess of 20%, and we've also seen huge increases in the cancer rate among Iraqis. We have no comparable data on that now, but the same depleted uranium munitions were used this time, and as the years go by we will be hearing more and more about such things. For another example, we now know that most of the fighters for the Taliban, which we now hate so much [and who increasingly have reason to hate us], started off as young children in refugee camps that were created as a result of our proxy war against the Soviet Union, which ravaged Afghanistan for ten years, and continued for thirteen more before we jumped back in and are still fighting there. We have no idea now what will eventually happen to the children of the US occupation in Iraq, but the likelihood that some will come back to haunt us sooner or later is fairly strong.
Given all that the US has done in the Islamic world, the thing that I find most remarkable is that there is so little anti-US activism (as opposed to sentiment or mere opinion). There are, I'm sure, lots of reasons for that, not least of which is that Jihadism isn't a very attractive use of one's life. Any political movement that depends on its adherents being willing to undertake suicide missions is bound to burn itself out, unless by some colossal act of stupidity some force continuously drives more and more people to extreme desperation. We've seen that especially with Israel, and it's clear that the US is doing the same thing in Iraq.
But, and again we can look to Israel for plentiful examples, what we do in Iraq also affects who we are in the US. We are now a country so drunk with our own power that we have become insensitive to how we lash out and hurt others. And this will grow worse before it can possibly get better, in large part because Bush is now facing an increasingly desperate political campaign to gain a second term despite the cauldron of lies and cruelties that his administration has brewed. He will pursue this with the largest advertising budget ever assembled for a political election, and more dangerously he will pursue it with the full power of the US presidency -- with his ability to take action and create news. Moreover, he has a near-fanatic cadre of supporters, who have established that they have little respect for the freedom or rights or others, or for democracy in general, and they will only become more militant as this election unfolds. So, of course, will his opponents. This promises to be the most divisive election in the US since 1860. There's much more at stake, of course, but the wedge that drives this division is Iraq. And it raises a question which still isn't really part of the political dialogue in America, which is whether we are really capable of being a benevolent superpower -- indeed, of whether we are really benevolent, or even a superpower. I think that the answer to that is obvious. What's not clear is when, and how, the day of reckoning comes.
After the early Summer crisis, Bush managed to cool Iraq down enough that he could run for reëlection on clichés like "stay the course," and Kerry was so busy primping to become "commander in chief" that he let Bush off the hook. Meanwhile, Karl Rove cooked up a massive campaign of gay bashing, which motivated the Republican base vote. The result was a narrow win -- the most disappointing election for me since the first one I voted in, 1972, again because it failed to remove one of the worst war criminals in modern history.
Bush then ordered the total flattening of Fallujah, which kicked the Sunni revolt up to ever higher levels. Shiite militias, with US backing, then purged all mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, locking in a vicious civil war. Meanwhile, Bush squandered the political capital his reëlection supposedly gained him with a stupid scheme to cripple Social Security. A bit later, his administration grossly mishandled Hurricane Katrina, and by the end of his term, major banks had gone bankrupt, and many more had to be bailed out.
The Valerie Plame affair ended with Scooter Libby convicted for obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to jail, and pardoned by Bush before he could follow through on threats to expose more wrongdoing. Oddly enough, Cheney became much less effective after Libby was forced out. Colin Powell quit, Rumsfeld was forced out, and Paul Wolfowitz was dispatched to the World Bank, so the swagger of the first term all but vanished. Meanwhile, Afghanistan went from bad to worse. At least Iraq allowed an exit that wouldn't be totally embarrassing (although after the ISIS revolt, US troops returned in a more limited role, where they remain to this day.
This is a selected bibliography, largely cribbed from my reading list and book roundups, although I've had to rewrite a bunch of them (especially earlier books). I've actually read the overwhelming majority of these books (aside from the "Long List" at the end; aside from the section on the surge and ISIS, where I felt like I knew enough to skip the books, the only items I haven't read are Robert Draper (came out in 2020), Aram Roston (I had no illusions about Ahmad Chalabi), and the second Riverbend (noted for completeness).
Post-Cold War Militarism:
Of course, it helps to know a lot about American history before this period. I got a fast start by reading William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko (among many others), and I know a fair amount about world history as well. Americans have long had a soft spot for their generals (e.g., presidents Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower), although the wannabes have often proved more gung ho (Madison, Polk, and both Roosevelts). It was only after WWII that Americans realized they had an unquenched taste for war, so re-armed to search out "monsters to destroy." After the Cold War, which left the Soviet Union in ruins without gaining America much of anything, the question of demobilizing was barely raised.
Andrew Bacevich: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005; paperback, 2006; updated, paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press): Colonel-turned scholar, explains how the US military got its mojo back after Vietnam. Bacevich went on to write a number of critical books about American military or foreign policy, including: American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2004); The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (2007); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010); America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016); The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (2020); and After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed (2021). The 2016 book is a good overview of the War on Terror.
Max Boot: The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002; paperback, 2003, Basic Books): A useful synopsis of dozens of "small wars," including the ones that added "Tripoli" and "Montezuma" to the Marines anthem, but skipping ones like Korea and Vietnam that got out of hand. The thesis is that we shouldn't fear even ill-conceived, poorly understood wars because they work out fine in the end anyway. As such, this was meant as a brief against the Powell Doctrine, which held that we should never enter a war without a clear understanding of aims, complete dominance of force, and an exit strategy. Panama and Persian Gulf were examples of Powell wars. At the time this was published, Afghanistan was arguably an example of a successful small war, and Iraq was next up.
Rosa Brooks: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016, Simon & Schuster): Daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich went to law school, married a Green Beret, and got sucked into the State and Defense Departments, winding up with this insufficiently critical but rather perceptive analysis of the all-too-true title.
James Carroll: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (2006, Houghton Mifflin): The big building was built during WWII, and has housed American military command ever since, providing a framework for exploring its lore and insular culture through the ages. Although Carroll is critical of militarism and war, he has a personal connection in that his father was a general, who worked there and gave his son tours. Carroll also published a valuable collection of columns, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War (2004, Metropolitan).
John W Dower: Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (2010, WW Norton): Historian of Japan (WWII, post-war occupation), got involved in the Iraq debate when hawks tried to invoke WWII as a model of how America rebuilds countries it destroys. This collects the pieces I cite above. Later wrote The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books).
Tom Engelhardt: The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (1995; second edition, paperback, 2007, University of Massachusetts Press): The "victory" was in WWII, which seeped into every poor of popular culture, and fueled the subsequent Cold War -- which disillusioned many of us, but not enough to dismantle the permanent war machine and its deep political influence. Engelhardt responded to 9/11 by creating his TomDispatch blog, which has published many of the writers I mention here. Early posts there, which put Iraq in the broader context of American empire, were collected as Mission Unaccomplished: TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts & Dissenters (paperback, 2006, Nation Books), and The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (2008, Verso). Engelhardt's later books were compiled from his posts: The American Way of War: How the Empire Brought Itself to Ruin (2010, Haymarket); The United States of Fear (2011, Haymarket); Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (2014, Haymarket); and A Nation Unmade by War (2018, Haymarket).
Chalmers Johnson: The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004, Metropolitan): Former CIA officer, popularized the term "blowback" in his 2000 book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (revised, paperback, 2004, Holt). One of the most perceptive books ever about the downsides of trying to control an empire. He wrote two more valuable books: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2010, Metropolitan); and Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (2010, Metropolitan Books).
Fred Kaplan: Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (2008; paperback, 2008, Wiley): A history of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, which gripped the Pentagon in the 1990s and convinced them that they fight wars faster and more decisively than ever before, encouraging a degree of recklessness that veterans of the Vietnam debacle (like Colin Powell) had struggled to contain. When Bush campaigned in 2000, he was almost giddy in anticipation about what this new military could do. After 9/11, he could put it to the test. It failed. Or perhaps I should say, it failed to solve the problems he wanted it to solve.
Anatol Lieven: America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2004, Oxford University Press): A journalist who specializes in Russia's foreign affairs takes an outsider view of American nationalism, informed by Europe's own disastrous affair with nationalism (what Arnold Mayer refers to as "the thirty years war of the 20th century").
James Mann: Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin): Group biography of Bush's top warmongers: former Defense Secretaries Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, former Joint Chiefs Chair Colin Powell, and others (pictured on cover: Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Armitage). Not all are proper neocons, but all have a long history of wargaming, and all believe in strengthening the military for projection of power.
On 9/11, Before and After:
Some basic books on the emergence of salafist-jihadist Islam, its particular manifestation in Al Qaeda -- where Bin Laden's concept of a "far enemy" is distinctive -- and America's knee-jerk reaction (anticipated by Bin Laden, who like many others saw Afghanistan as a "graveyard of empires"). There is a lot more on the subject, as well as important background on colonialism (back to the Crusades, but mostly British -- David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Middle East (1989. Henry Holt) remains a standard history) and Cold War politics.
Also, nothing on Israel, which was a persistent thorn in the side of the Arab world (which I've read close to 100 books on). By the way, I read a number of books on Islam and older Arab history, including Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples, but they're not especially relevant here. Also note that while jihadism led to 9/11, and later to ISIS, the reasoning that drove Bush to invade Iraq had virtually nothing (other than perhaps deep-seated prejudice) to do with Islam. Oddly enough, I can't think of a single book that manages to balance out the Cold War residue, oil politics, and peculiar schizophrenia when torn between their supposed allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) and those allies' enemies (Iran, but also each other).
Ira Chernus: Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin (paperback, 2006, Paradigm): This is a powerful critique of the neoconservative mindset -- not a term I would normally employ, but it really does appear to be set deep in the psyche, unlike most political ideologies, which are easily reduced to perceived interests.
Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin Books): The standard work on the CIA intervention in Afghanistan, going back before the Russian invasion in 1979.
Dilip Hiro: The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (second edition, paperback, 2003, Carroll & Graf): A veritable encyclopedia on the whole region, one I still keep in arm's reach on my closest reference shelf. Hiro's books specifically on Iraq are included in my "Long List" below (including one written before the invasion), but he's also written extensively on Iran, Pakistan, and central Asia, and the broader impacts of Jihadism and the American War on Terror, including After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (2010, Nation Books).
Gilles Kepel: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2000, Belknap Press): The definitive book on the various threads of political Islam as they developed from the 1970, when they were cultured as useful tools by Islamist governments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, into the 1980s when they were weaponized by the CIA, and through the 1990s, when they got a bit out of hand and turned on their previous masters. Kepel felt they were in eclipse when he wrote his big book, and that 9/11 was an act of desperation, a last effort to get noticed. Thanks to Bush and Putin, they succeeded, which kept Kepel writing his sober and sensible books, from The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004, Belknap Press), to Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (2017, Princeton University Press).
Michael Scheuer [Anonymous]: Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004, Potomac Books): CIA agent (actual name revealed much later), specifically involved in tracking Al Qaeda, which he deals with matter-of-factly. After he made his name, he continued to churn out books like Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq (2008, Free Press), which (of course) wasn't really "after Iraq."
Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Knopf): Easily the most readable background history on where Al Qaeda came from and how they provoked the US into the gargantuan act of self-harm known as the Global War on Terror.
On Iraq: Up to Invasion
This period is poorly represented in books. Many journalists just copied what they were told, leaving them little that wasn't embarrassing to compile -- the most notorious, Judith Miller, waited until 2015 to write her book, by then about herself: The Story: A Reporter's Journey (2015, Thorndike Press). Others were too busy chasing new lies on top of old lies. By then the war had been launched, and the lies were overwhelmed by further atrocities (like Abu Ghraib). Draper's book, written to plug this hole, only came out in 2020.
Tariq Ali: Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq (2003, Verso): Quickie review of US-Iraqi history, not forgetting Britain's original colonial project there. Ali, a Pakistani who moved to England and became an editor of New Left Review, previously wrote The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002, Verso), which peeled back the layers of conflicting interests on all sides, and has since written many more useful books, including: Rough Music: Blair Bombs Baghdad London Terror (2006, Verso).
Larry Beinhart: Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (2005; paperback, 2006, Nation Books): Only partly on Iraq, which looms large among many other examples of propaganda spin from the period. Beinhart previously wrote the screenplay for Wag the Dog, a speculative movie about a president faking a war for political opportunism (and distraction). Bush's presidency was widely viewed as a disaster until 9/11 rallied public support for his bellicosity.
Robert Draper: To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (2020, Penguin): Written so long after the fact that I haven't bothered to read it, but this is probably the most definitive accounting we have of the runup to Bush's war. Draper previously wrote one of the most insightful books on Bush: Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush (2007, Free Press).
Rashid Khalidi: Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance of the Middle East (2009; paperback, 2010, Beacon Press): Shows how the US imposed its neuroses onto the Middle East -- a paranoia over communism that put us in bed with Islamic jihadists, a messianic embrace of Israeli and apocalypse that put us on the outs, an obsession with oil and money, and with our own military's conceit of omnipotence, no matter how often it failed. Khalidi mostly writes on Israel/Palestine, which is the main (but not the only) subject of Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013, Beacon Press).
Scott Ritter: Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein (2005, Nation Books): UN weapons inspector, made it clear before the war that Iraq had no active WMD programs, and that the Bush administration claims were pure propaganda.
Aram Roston: The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (2008, Nation Books): The much-hyped public face of anti-Saddam Iraq, he was already known as a crook and charlatan, but there were war planners who wanted to install him as puppet dictator (like Syngman Rhee, who also campaigned in the salons of America to run his home country). For a few brief months he was everywhere, but Americans started having second thoughts as soon as they got to Baghdad, finding no one there in favor of Chalabi, and evidence that he might be too friendly with Iran.
Nicholas von Hoffman: Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies (paperback, 2004, Nation Books): One of the best books at unpacking the Bush marketing campaign for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
On Iraq: The Invasion and Early Occupation
The invasion was well publicized, with many reporters embedded in military units all the way up to top command, bonding with troops and faithfully jotting down the stories they were fed. The Bremer period was also very friendly to reporters, while back at the Pentagon Rumsfeld gave daily press conferences to his swooning admirers. It took a couple years to sort reports into books, and by then many reporters had become skeptical if not downright critical.
But at least for this period, information was available. After Bremer got kicked out, the Iraqi frontmen (mostly Iyad Allawi) and the Americans behind the scenes (John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad) became inaccessible, and the news dried up.
Ali A Allawi: The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (2007, Yale University Press): Report from a member of Iraq's political class, one who advised UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to push for a provisional government of apolitical technocrats. The US didn't want any such thing.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage): Journalist who covered the war cheerfully for PBS, but who realized, when he got around to cashing in with a book, discovered the picture all along had been pretty grim. Ends when Bremer departs, after which it became much harder for journalists to collect stories of such gross ineptitude. He moved on to write a similar book about Afghanistan: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf).
Patrick Cockburn: The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (2006, Verso): British journalist well-versed, in Iraqi history and politics, having co-written (with Andrew Cockburn) the 1999 book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (British title in 2002: Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession). He had previously covered Russia, so noted the similarities between Bush's War on Terror and Putin's rise from obscurity to fight terror in Chechnya, thus consolidating his hold on power. Cockburn went on to write Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (2008, Scribner), and several books on ISIS (below).
Michael R Gordon/Bernard E Trainor: Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (2006, Pantheon): New York Times correspondend "embedded" in command headquarters, guided here a Marine General, so this gives you an insider account of the initial invasion and its military and political objectives. The latter are of most interest, as they show the extent to which Bush's delusions permeated the supposedly more sober thinking of the generals. At the end of the war, the duo followed up with Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq From George W Bush to Barack Obama (2012, Pantheon; paperback, 2013, Vintage), referencing "still-classified documents."
Seymour Hersh: Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004, Harper Collins; paperback, 2005, Harper Perennial): Journalist, broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, then looks back at Guantanamo, then further back to "how America's spies missed September 11th," and forward again through "the intelligence stovepipe" to the invasion.
Dahr Jamail: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (2007, Haymarket): As the title indicates, one of the few American journalists in Iraq who wasn't confined to the Green Zone, and one of the few who kept reporting well after the Americans calling the shots stopped meeting with the press.
Thomas E Ricks: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006; paperback, 2007, Penguin Press): Washington Post Pentagon reporter, embedded during the invasion, usually a reliable spokesman for his subjects but dawdled enough on this account that he started to recognize that things weren't going quite as hoped.
Riverbend: Baghdad Burning (2005, paperback, Feminist Press at CUNY); and Baghdad Burning II: More Girl Blog From Iraq (2006, paperback, Feminist Press at CUNY): Collection of remarkable reports on the occupation, as experienced by a fairly privileged young woman in Baghdad. As I understand it, the posts ended when she left the country, initially for Syria.
Nir Rosen: In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (2006, Free Press). Freelance journalist, fluent in Arabic, one of the few able to see both sides of the growing insurrection.
Anthony Shadid: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (2005, Henry Holt): Washington Post writer, one of the few who spoke Arabic, which helped to make him one of the first to have a clue how the occupation was failing.
Evan Wright: Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (2004; paperback, 2005, Berkley Trade): Rolling Stone correspondent, embedded with Marines for their initial push to Baghdad, probably the best such account, mostly because it's the most irreverent, making him one of the few embeds to notice the absurdity as well as the random violence of the invasion. HBO made a series out of it.
Later Iraq, From the "Surge" to ISIS
I've only read a few books in this section (Michael Hastings, Thomas E Ricks, Nir Rosen). At this time, even before Obama took over, there was a shift to increasingly dire Afghanistan, with a corresponding wave of books. I've only included Hastings here because it tells you as much about late military thinking in Iraq. I've included books on the formation of ISIS, but there doesn't seem to be much on the US return to Iraq to fight ISIS, including the ongoing intervention in Syria.
Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (paperback, 2015, Olive Branch Press): A short, succinct introduction, from the author of a number of these primers, including Ending the Iraq War and Ending the US War in Afghanistan, viewing these wars from a firm understanding of history and a strong commitment to the idea of international law.
Patrick Cockburn: The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (paperback, 2015, Verso): Expanded edition of a 2014 book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, the first of several books he wrote on ISIS: Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East (paperback, 2016, OR Books); The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East (2016, Verso); and War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict With Iran (2020, Verso).
Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press): Not specifically on Iraq, but this is where the counterinsurgency ideas of Petraeus and McChrystal hit the fan, failing spectacularly, less because their approach to the Afghans didn't make sense than because American soldiers proved incapable of implementing them. Book is famous for getting Obama to fire McChrystal for badmouthing him, but that's unfair to Obama: the guy with the really bad mouth was Michael Flynn, who Obama promoted to head of Defense Intelligence Agency (before having to fire him too).
Fred Kaplan: The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster): Through luck and PR skills, Petraeus came out of the Iraq "surge" as the best-known, most-esteemed general in the Army. He then used his prominence to recycle a set of tired platitudes on counterinsurgency as the doctrine that would save the mission in Afghanistan. The guy who got stuck with that task was Stanley McChrystal, who failed miserably: so bad that when Obama brought Petraeus back to take over, he ditched the theory completely.
Thomas E Ricks: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (2009, Penguin Press): He surprised me with his candor in Fiasco, but it was clear there that he was a Petraeus fan, so this may have come out too early to be properly recognized as Fiasco II.
Nir Rosen: Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2010, Nation Books): Includes reporting from Lebanon and Afghanistan as well as from Iraq: the "surge," the "awakening," the emergence of ISIS.
Joseph E Stiglitz/Linda J Bilmes: The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008; paperback, 2008, WW Norton): Economists attempt to provide a full accounting, including future health care for veterans, and macroeconomic costs (interest on deficit, etc.). Abid Amiri wrote a similar book with same title: The Trillion Dollar War: The US Effort to Rebuild Afghanistan, 1999-2021 (paperback, 2021, Marine Corps University Press). Recent cost estimates top $7 trillion.
Bing West: The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (2008, Random House): This is what "the surge" brought: America as just another warlord, albeit the one with the most firepower, ergo the one that can regulate the balance in the Sunni-Shiite civil war, and thus perpetuate it, but not end it. That extended the war, which for the Americans was better than flat-out losing it.
On Iraq: The Long List
Other books from the file, by no means complete (e.g., I collected long lists of soldier memoirs, but didn't bother breaking them out). I've read a few of these: Juan Cole, Aaron Glantz (first), Chris Hedges/Laila Al-Arian, Dexter Filkins, Barton Gellman, Dilip Hiro (first), Eugene Jarecki, Jane Mayer, George Packer, William R Polk (first), Paul William Roberts, Robert Scheer, and the last-mentioned Noam Chomsky (and possibly others). They are all generally good books, although sometimes you want to hit Packer.
John Agresto, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions (2007, Encounter Books).
Fouad Ajami: The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq (2006, Simon & Schuster).
Nadje Al-Ali/Nicola Pratt: What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009, University of California Press).
Matthew Alexander/John Bruning: How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq (2008, Free Press): Zarqawi.
Christian Alfonsi, Circle in the Sand: Why We Went Back to Iraq (2006, Doubleday).
Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (2007, paperback, Henry Holt).
Raymond W Baker/Shereen T Ismael/Tareq Y Ismael, eds: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (2010, Pluto Press).
James Bamford: A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (2004, Doubleday; paperback, 2005, Anchor). [*]
Peter Beinart: The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006, Harper; paperback, 2008, Harper Perennial).
Peter Beinart: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (2010, Harper; paperback, 2011, Harper Perennial).
David Bellavia: House to House: An Epic Memoir of War (2007, Free Press): Guilt-free soldier memoir of razing Fallujah.
Daniel P Bolger: Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (2014, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Three-star general concedes, "we never really understood our enemy."
L Paul Bremer III: My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope (2006, Simon & Schuster): Public head of the early occupation government in Iraq.
Susan A Brewer: Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (2009; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press).
Christopher Cerf/Victor Navasky: Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak (paperback, 2008, Simon & Schuster): A compendium of quotes from those who launched the war, and those who cheered them on.
Noam Chomsky/Vijay Prashad: The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power (2022, New Press): Of course, many of Chomsky's many books touch on Iraq, as well as explore the general mentality that led to Iraq. E.g.: Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (2003, Metropolitan); Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2007, Henry Holt); Who Rules the World? (2016; paperback, 2017, Metropolitan).
Andrew Cockburn: Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015, Henry Holt).
Andrew Cockburn: The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine (2021, Verso).
Juan Cole: Engaging the Muslim World (2009; paperback, 2010, Palgrave Macmillan): Historian -- Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (2007, Palgrave Macmillan) -- turned blogger, not limited to Iraq.
John Crawford, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq (2005, Riverhead; paperback, 2006, Penguin).
Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (paperback, 2004, New York Review Books).
John Diamond: The CIA and the Culture of Failure: US Intelligence from the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq (2008, Stanford Security Studies).
Larry Diamond: Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (2005, Times Books).
Charles Duelfer: Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq (2009, Public Affairs): Head of UNSCOM 1993-2000, and post-invasion of Iraq Survey Group search for WMD.
John Ehrenberg/J Patrice McSherry/José Ramón Sánchez/Caroleen Marji Sayej: The Iraq Papers (paperback, 2010, Oxford University Press): 656 pp of primary sources on the WMD scam.
Kurt Eichenwald: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (2012; paperback, 2013, Touchstone): Covers 18 months from 9/11 to invasion of Iraq.
Peter Eisner, The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq (2007, Rodale Press).
Richard Engel: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During & After the War (2004; paperback, 2005, Hachette): NBC correspondent.
Richard Engel: War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (2008; paperback, 2011, Simon & Schuster).
Sam Faddis: The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War (2020, Casemate).
Richard Falk/Irene Gendzier/Robert Jay Lifton: Crimes of War: Iraq (2006, Nation Books).
James Fallows, Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (paperback, 2006, Vintage): Atlantic Monthly correspondent.
Noah Feldman: What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (2004; paperback, 2006, Princeton University Press).
Noah Feldman: The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (2008, Princeton University Press).
Charles Ferguson: No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent Into Chaos (paperback, 2008, Public Affairs): Tie-in to a fairly good documentary.
Nathaniel Fick: One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (paperback, 2006, Mariner). [*]
Dexter Filkins: The Forever War (2008, Knopf): New York Times correspondent.
Robert Fisk: The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005; paperback, 2007, Knopf): British journalist, covers the whole Middle East, his Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (1990) is definitive.
Robert Fisk: The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays (2008, Nation Books; paperback, 2011, Bold Type): An early one is titled: "Be very afraid: Bush Productions is preparing to go into action."
Tommy Franks: American Soldier (2004, Regan Books): Commander in Chief (CENTCOM), got out fast and wrote this book. [*]
Peter W Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End (2006, Simon & Schuster): Advocated partitioning Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite states.
Peter W Galbraith: Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies (2008, Simon & Schuster).
Lloyd C Gardner/Marilyn B Young, eds.: Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past (2007, New Press).
Lloyd C Gardner: The Long Road to Baghdad: A History of US Foreign Policy From the 1970s to the Present (2008, New Press).
Anne Garrels: Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent (2003, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2004, Picador).
Barton Gellman: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2009, Penguin).
Marc Gerstein/Michael Ellsberg: Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental (2008, Union Square Press): Iraq among widely scattered examples, like Chernobyl and Katrina.
Aaron Glantz: How America Lost Iraq (2005, Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin).
Aaron Glantz: Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (paperback, 2008, Haymarket Books): Reports from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Glantz followed up with: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (2009, University of California Press).
Philip H Gordon: Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East (2020, St Martin's Press): Obama's Coordinator for the Middle East (2013-15).
Philip Gourevitch/Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure (2008, Penguin): Companion book to Morris's documentary, focusing on the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Richard N Haass: War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (2009, Simon & Schuster): Functionary in both Bush administrations, unable to see the connection.
Haider Ala Hamoudi: Howling in Mesopotamia: An Iraqi-American Memoir (2008, Beaufort Books): A cousin of Ahmed Chalabi.
Chris Hedges/Laila Al-Arian: Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians (2008; paperback, 2009, Nation Books).
Dilip Hiro: Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (paperback, 2002, Thunder's Mouth Press).
Dilip Hiro: Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After: A Prelude to the Fall of US Power in the Middle East? (paperback, 2003, Nation Books).
Russ Hoyle: Going to War: How Misinformation, Disinformation, and Arrogance Led America Into Iraq (2008, Thomas Dunne).
William Hughes: Saying "No" to the War Party: A Collection of Essays and Photos in Opposition to Iraq War No. 2 (paperback, 2003, iUniverse).
Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (2006; paperback, 2007, Crown).
Eugene Jarecki: The American Way of War and How It Lost Its Way: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril (2008, Free Press): Director of documentary, Why We Fight.
Robert D Kaplan: Imperial Grunts: On the Ground With the American Military, From Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq (2005, Random House; paperback, 2006, Vintage).
Tony Lagouranis/Allen Mikaelian: Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq (2007, NAL).
Frank Ledwidge: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011, Yale University Press).
Carter Malkasian: Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (2017, Oxford University Press). [*]
Jane Mayer: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008, Doubleday).
Michael J Mazarr: Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (2019, PublicAffairs).
George McGovern/William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (paperback, 2006, Simon & Schuster).
T Christian Miller, Blood Money: A Story of Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq (2006; paperback, 2007, Little Brown).
Greg Mitchell: So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed in Iraq (paperback, 2008, Union Square Press): Sorts the details out in good form for reference.
Greg Muttitt: Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (2012, Free Press).
Richard North: Ministry of Defeat: The British in Iraq 2003-2009 (2009, Continuum).
George Packer: The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq (2005, Farrar Straus Giroux): One of the more prominent liberal hawks, turned out to be profoundly disappointed by the way the war went.
Paul R Pillar: Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (2011, Columbia University Press): Ex-CIA.
William Rivers Pitt/Scott Ritter: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know (paperback, 2002, Context): 92 pp.
William R Polk: Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (2007, Harper): Ten case studies.
William R Polk: Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation (paperback, 2006, Palgrave Macmillan).
Kenneth M Pollack: The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002, Random House): Ex-CIA, DOD, think tanker, this book was very influential at the time. Followed up with Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster), where he belatedly advised us not to make the same mistake with Iran.
Kenneth Pollack: A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (2008, Random House): Major promoter of Iraq WMD hysteria, tries to make amends.
Samantha Power: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008, Penguin Press): Profile of the UN mediator who was killed in one of the first big terror attacks in post-invasion Iraq.
Sheldon Rampton/John Stauber: Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (paperback, 2003, Tarcher Perigee): Editors of PR Watch, also wrote books like Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! and Trust Us, We're Experts!.
Sheldon Rampton/John Stauber, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq (paperback, 2006, Tarcher).
Joel Rayburn: Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (2014, Hoover Institution Press).
Jeffrey Record: Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq (2010, Potomac Books). [*]
Paul William Roberts: A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq (2005, Raincoast).
Linda Robinson: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (2008, Public Affairs): Part of the Petraeus press blitz.
Aram Roston: The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (2008, Nation Books).
Timothy Andrews Sayle/Jeffrey A Engel/Hal Brands/William Inboden, eds: The Last Card: Inside George W Bush's Decision to Surge in Iraq (2019, Cornell University Press).
Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007, Nation Books).
Robert Scheer: The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (2008, Twelve).
Michael Schwartz: War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (paperback, 2008, Haymarket Books).
Jim Sheeler: Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (2008, Penguin Press): Short bios, stories, and/or obits of dead US soldiers from the Iraq war.
Nancy Sherman: The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (2010, WW Norton): Taught ethics at US Naval Academy.
Nancy Sherman: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015, Oxford University Press).
Kevin Sites: The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial).
Emma Sky: The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015, Public Affairs): British, worked in occupation, e.g., as political adviser to US Gen. Odierno.
Peter Sluglett: Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (2007, Columbia University Press): History of British Mandate in Iraq.
Jonathan Steele: Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (2008, Counterpoint): British author. Most American authors just ignore Britain's contribution.
Rory Stewart, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq (2006, Harcourt; paperback, 2007, Mariner): British diplomat, later Conservative MP, "did his bit," as they like to say.
Steven Strasser, ed, The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Independent Panel and Pentagon Reports on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq (paperback, 2004, Public Affairs).
Craig Unger: The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future (2007, Scribner).
Peter Van Buren: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011, Metropolitan Books).
HC von Sponeck: A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq (2006, Berghahn): Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, oversaw sanctions program from 1990 to 2003.
Bing West: No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2005; paperback, 2006, Bantam). [*]
J Kael Weston: The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016, Knopf).
Marcy Wheeler: Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy (paperback, 2007, Vaster Books): The spy was Valerie Plame.
Bob Woodward: Bush at War (2002; paperback, 2003, Simon & Schuster).
Bob Woodward: Plan of Attack (2004; paperback, 2004, Simon & Schuster).
Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (2006; paperback, 2007, Simon & Schuster).
Bob Woodward: The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008 (2008; paperback, 2009, Simon & Schuster).
Bob Woodward: Obama's Wars (2010; paperback, 2011, Simon & Schuster).