THE END OF IRAQ: HOW AMERICAN INCOMPETENCE CREATED A WAR WITHOUT END
By Peter W. Galbraith
Simon and Schuster, $26, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
To anticipate your first question, no, this is not another quickie hindsight book about how some former enthusiast went sour on the intervention in Iraq. Peter Galbraith was arguing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein when Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were opposed to it, and before George W. Bush was even the governor of Texas.
Among Kurdish revolutionaries and secular Iraqi democrats, his is a name that commands appreciable respect. He was with them in the tough time of the Iran-Iraq war, the genocidal gassings and bombings in Kurdistan, and the pivotal moment in 1991 when the United States made the crucial mistake of leaving Saddam Hussein in power after his eviction from Kuwait. And he has been with them ever since. His title, concerning the “end” of Iraq, is slightly misleading in that he now thinks that the country has in fact disintegrated, and that we should do our best to recognize that unalterable fact.
His title also rather works against his subtitle, in that he believes — and argues persuasively — that Iraq was a bad idea as a state to begin with, and has been falling apart for a very long time. Given this, it is difficult to imagine any American statecraft that could (or even should) have held it together. But Mr. Galbraith was a direct witness to the early days of the occupation, and has been a participant in many of the subsequent constitutional and electoral negotiations, and his account of the blunders and the missed opportunities is by a very long way the best one published so far.
He is a lifelong Democrat, and not on the right of his party either. (His father was the celebrated late economist of the same name.) Anyone interested in human rights in the 1980s and 1990s knew of his work, as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as a diplomat, and he played an important role in changing American policy in favor of the Bosnian resistance to Slobodan Milosevic’s mad plan for a militarized Greater Serbia. His long engagement with Iraq had convinced him that the even madder Ba’ath Party had to go, and he had a fair idea of the balance of forces and the key personalities involved.
He is fairer than you might expect to Ahmad Chalabi (and too fair to the exploded Joseph Wilson and his wild campaign to discredit the true facts regarding the Niger uranium deal), but he correctly points out that the most influential Iraqi in Washington was probably Barham Salih, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who in his dealings with all parties was never even accused of anything shady.
Our whole recent engagement with Iraq began when we correctly decided to place protective “no fly” zones over the Kurdish and Shi’ite provinces in 1991, to thwart a renewal of Saddam’s serial genocides. From then on, the idea of political autonomy caught on among the populations which together constitute the country’s majority. (Henry Kissinger was a typical “realist” in telling the Washington Post in 2002 that the majority of Iraqis were Sunni!)
Thus, Mr. Galbraith knew that a final confrontation with Saddam was not so much desirable (as it was) but inescapable. Why, then, was it so ill-prepared and so clumsily executed? The original sin, if I can put it like that, was the postponement of Iraqi sovereignty and elections. This compressed the interval between liberation and occupation into a depressingly short one, and is considered by all Iraqis and Kurds I know to have been the most abysmal loss of a great opportunity.
This false start, as we now know, was exploited by the Ba’athists and bin-Ladenists to create a ghastly opportunity of their own. I think that this fascistic sabotage would have happened in any case, with or without a Coalition intervention, but that doesn’t soften the critique of Paul Bremer’s hapless regime that Mr. Galbraith lays out here.
Paradoxically, and not always fully conscious of the fact, he argues that the greatest success of the intervention is also the proof of its failure. In Iraqi Kurdistan, an embryo mini-republic is racing ahead of the misery and sectarianism that menaces the remainder of the country. (It is also lighting a beacon for long-oppressed Kurds in neighboring states.) There is construction, prosperity, safety and a feeling of liberation, and the United States should take pride in having been the midwife of all this.
However, there is no chance that the Kurds will ever go back to being Iraqis, and the logic of this has catalyzed other demands for greater independence from the hellish capital in Baghdad. Mr. Galbraith accepts this development for what it is, and states plainly that “a managed amicable divorce is in the best interests of the peoples of Iraq, and will contribute to greater stability in the region.”
A great deal would depend on how this divorce was arbitrated. If agreed between the principal parties, it could in theory occur as simply as the separation between the Czechs and Slovaks. But in other circumstances, partition could involve a hideous confessional war in the many mixed districts, and the intervention of Iran and Saudi Arabia on the side of the most intransigent forces.
Of course, to an extent, this is happening already. Yet it could easily get worse. And it could raise the charge that the United States was trying to Balkanize and splinter Iraq in order to weaken the Arab world. It would also leave Iraq’s many non-sectarians, currently terrified and voiceless, in the lurch. But we should make no mistake: This crisis was inherent in the nature of the Iraqi state, not just in the character of the intervention.
Here at last is a book written by someone who both knows about Iraq, and cares about it. It contains the sort of anecdotal glimpses that make for a fine (and sometimes hair-raising) memoir, and it is written with an apt and wry sense of history. It tells us that much has been lost, but that all is not lost. Its advice is sober and practical. It offers a serious balance-sheet. How one wishes that its author had been listened to in the first place.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of “A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.”