Book Review: Jonathan Steele's View of the Iraq Disaster

Naive Idealism and Hegemonial Arrogance

In his new book on the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele writes that both the Bush and Blair governments completely misjudged the complexity of Iraq when they made their decision to go to war. Susan Javad has read it

​​After the US troop surge in autumn last year, there was a decrease in the number of attacks by insurgents and in the number of dead. Some observers considered that Iraq was on the way to a peaceful and prosperous future, and that the invasion by the US and Great Britain had been retrospectively justified.

That this was wishful thinking can be seen from the recent upsurge in attacks in Baghdad, in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians have lost their lives. And the new book by the British journalist Jonathan Steele explains in its 290 pages why there is scarcely any hope for an improvement in the situation.

Analogy with post-war Germany?

Steele shows us how the humiliation which the Iraqis have suffered at the hands of the coalition troops sits deep. Unlike the US and British governments, he regards the resistance in Iraq as primarily authentically Iraqi rather than as a hostile alien force.

The book argues that the neo-conservative aim of creating the first liberal democracy in the Middle East has failed. It was a mistake to assume that it would be possible to repeat the success stories of German and Japanese reconstruction after the Second World War.

Steele writes that both the Bush and Blair governments completely misjudged the complexity of Iraq when they made their decision to go to war. In addition, they – especially the Americans – were completely unaware of how much they were disliked throughout the entire region.

The appointment of the insensitive Paul Bremer as US civil administrator in Iraq only made things worse. As a result of his political tactlessness Bremer exacerbated tensions between the different elements in the population instead of calming them.

"All donne – go home!"

Steele visited Iraq eight times for the liberal "Guardian" newspaper. He travelled around the country and spoke to Iraqis from the various social, religious and ethnic groups. In nine chapters he gives his readers an insight into the psyche of this severely abused people.

U.S. Marines on patrol in Ramadi (Photo: AP)
Jonathan Steele believes that the Iraq war was fought out of a naive idealism and a hegemonial arrogance

​​He shows us a society which, in spite of its internal disunity and heterogeneity (which he does not deny), is united in its rejection of the Anglo-American occupation.

Most people are indeed relieved to have seen the fall of Saddam Hussein; Steele finds this to be the case among both Sunnis and Shiites. But in his interviews "on the street", Steele shows the extent of the anger towards the coalition troops, whose continued presence in the country calls forth resistance from both religious and secular Iraqis.

The mood can be best summarised in the ungrammatical but unmistakable words of an anonymous graffiti writer in Baghdad: "All donne, go home!"

Dense analysis of the war

The main part of Steele's book deals with the period shortly before and after the invasion. He avoids dealing directly with the issue of whether the Iraq war was primarily fought for strategic, economic or idealistic reasons.

But it becomes clear from the web of information which becomes more and more dense with each chapter, that he believes that the war was fought out of a naive idealism and a hegemonial arrogance.

A good example is the scene in which Tony Blair receives a group of British Iraq experts. When they warned him that the Iraqis will not welcome foreign troops, he replied by referring to Saddam Hussein with the words: "But the man is uniquely evil, isn't he?" For him that was the end of the discussion.

Jonathan Steele recounts the story of the Iraq war through observations, interviews and research. In telling the story, he finds it more important to show the links between events than to proceed strictly chronologically. It becomes clear in the course of the book that he does not see himself as a neutral observer. He wants his book to take a clear position.

He writes in the final chapter of his book that he has now too many Iraqi friends, and become too aware of the suffering they still suffer, for him not to find himself sharing their anger and desperation. He admits openly that this is what has led him to write down his view of the war.

Iraq equals Palestine, rather than Germany

According to his analysis of the situation, the future for Iraq is gloomy. A vicious circle has emerged which can only be broken by a prompt and complete withdrawal of foreign troops. But even then, it would be an illusion to think that the killing will suddenly stop.

Iraq stands between the devil and the deep blue sea. Steele is convinced that if the coalition troops remain in the country, the USA and Britain will have to get ready for a war along Israeli-Palestinian lines – a war which cannot be won, even after decades of fighting.

Susan Javad

© 2008

Jonathan Steele: Defeat: Why America and Britain lost Iraq. Counterpoint 2008. 290 pages.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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