Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq

My following book review appeared in the Melbourne Age on April 19:

On the fifth anniversary the Iraq War, The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, the finest Western reporter in Iraq, wrote that the conflict “has been one of the most disastrous wars ever fought by Britain. It has been small but we achieved nothing . . . All governments lie in wartime but American and British propaganda in Iraq over the last five years has been more untruthful than in any conflict since the First World War”. Rupert Murdoch’s Australian praised the “liberation” and hailed the “principled reasons” behind the invasion.

The Guardian’s correspondent Jonathan Steele, a journalist who has spent time in Iraq since 2003, told Democracy Now! in March that, “the war was lost when they decided to have this open-ended occupation of the country without giving any date for withdrawal”. In his compelling new book, Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, Steele dispenses with analysing how the war could have been fought better, smarter or less violently, a feature of much Western media discussion.

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter once said that growing anti-war sentiment in America wasn’t due to real opposition to the war, but rather that his country wasn’t “winning”. Steele writes that, “occupations are inherently humiliating” and the Americans, British and Australians were seen as “murderous outsiders”.

The region was rightly wary of “imperial intrusion”, something ignored or unknown by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard. Steele’s book provides ample reasons why the Middle East craves freedom from Western meddling and has every right to resist its imposition.

Under the banners of “freedom” and “democracy”, the Western powers sought to transform a sanctions-starved nation into a nation run by Republican-indoctrinated hacks. Iraqis were not seen as trustworthy to run their own country. More ominously, Washington and its clients ignored the legitimate grievances held by many in the Arab world towards the West. Steele quotes Mohammed Heikal, an Egyptian journalist/historian and editor of Al-Ahram, who writes about the US-led war to oust Saddam from Kuwait in 1991: “When Westerners accuse Arabs of being over-suspicious, they tend to forget that the West has never shown even-handedness on issues which affect the survival of the Arab nation. History’s influence in creating what the West says is an over-suspicious Arab attitude to Western involvement was much stronger than most in the West realised . . . the crusader, the colonist, the mercenary and the spy have all made their mark on Arab attitudes.”

The invasion of Iraq merely consolidated these fears.

Steele, unlike many Western journalists whose understanding of the war has been through the lens of the American military, engages with real Iraqis and reveals their initial relief at deposing Saddam then anger at being humiliated by racist, foreign troops. He claims thousands of innocent civilians were murdered by American troops and the vast majority of the families were never compensated.

Not unlike in the lawless Palestinian territories illegally occupied by Israel – an environment that taught Washington a great deal about “managing” an indigenous population – disorder and chaos were the chosen method of control.

Steele recounts meeting American-appointed political leaders who talked openly about torturing “terrorists” to tame a growing insurgency. One dictator was being replaced with another equally brutal.

This book is a useful primer of a war that has slipped off the front pages of the Australian media. Steele urges a “negotiated withdrawal” that would hopefully “bring an orderly and relatively casualty-free departure”.

Leading investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recently told an audience in Canada, in views likely to be echoed by Steele: “I don’t think it is bad for a journalist to come back (from covering a war) and say it sucks.”

Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question is published by Melbourne University Publishing.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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