Earlier in the week I went on Press TV, the English-language channel of the Iranian state-run broadcaster. It was for a book programme called "Epilogue", whose host is the journalist Martin Short. I'm afraid I don't know when the programme will be shown - presumably it will be during the coming week. The book we were discussing was Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq by Jonathan Steele of The Guardian. The other guests were Steele himself and Oliver Miles, former ambassador to Libya and organiser of the "ambassadors' letter" attacking Tony Blair's policies in the Middle East. This is my view of the book.
Steele's book is emblazoned with a commendation by the master of selective quotation, creative elision (scroll down) and bogus citation (scroll down) Noam Chomsky. The book is better than you might think from this. I've read two of Steele's previous books - one an account of East Germany, written in the 1970s, and the other about Soviet foreign policy, written in the early 1980s. Defeat shares many characteristics with those earlier works. Steele is a capable reporter who marshals a lot of factual material, and so far as I can see does so reliably. The weakness of the book is the huge lacunae in the argument, the extreme and untenable conclusion thereby derived, and the alarming regularity of preposterous assertions. In his book on East Germany, Steele named as the most successful German statesman since Bismarck not Konrad Adenauer, or even (given Steele's position on the Cold War) Willy Brandt, but the foul Stalinist tyrant Walter Ulbricht. Defeat likewise keeps bringing you up short.
In Defeat, Steele makes three particularly significant omissions. First, he writes almost nothing about the rationale of the Iraq intervention. Steele's message is: "The war was designed to send a message to the region and to the world that the USA was the Number One power, able and willing to project force to any part of the globe with or without UN approval." The book ought really to be illustrated with cartoons at this point. Whether or not you believe, as I do, that the war was justified, you should come to terms with the case advanced for pre-emptive war in an age of terrorist gangs and their state sponsors. A far better place to start in understanding American foreign policy since 9/11 is in the work of the historian John Lewis Gaddis, who in a long essay in Foreign Affairs in 2005 identified, as important elements of grand strategy, both "a broadly conceived right to pre-empt danger" and "the need to legitimize that strategy" through multilateral support. The Bush administration merits forceful criticism in its application of the first principle and insouciance regarding the second. But if you merely dismiss such considerations as a cover for naked power, you're missing a great deal of significance.
Secondly, the book's narrative stops at an unfortunate juncture for Steele's argument. Steele recounts President Bush's response, in January 2007, to the misguided Baker-Hamilton report (about which I commented here). The book's footnotes go up to last June, showing Steele was trying to keep his argument as current as possible. Yet there is no mention of General David Petraeus. Steele's central claim is that "defeat was inevitable once the USA decided to stay in Iraq after April 2003". Yet the experience of strategy in Iraq is not consistent. Terrorist forces in Iraq remain potent and abominable (this atrocity yesterday is among the sickest crimes I've ever heard of). Yet since the US changed course a year ago, and in particular since the surge in US troops reached its peak last summer, those enemies have been weakened. Notably, Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province have turned against al-Qaeda, and similar alliances with US forces have spread. It is true that this turn was initiated before the surge, but only when US forces under Colonel Sean MacFarland began to apply in the capital of Anbar province the techniques that have characterised the surge. The surge itself has been crucial in ensuring that the gains of that strategy have held and are spreading. Petraeus and his extraordinarily courageous forces have not won this war, but they have turned it into a war that is winnable.
Thirdly, there is a striking absence in Steele's book of the sort of progressive critique that you might once have reasonably expected from a Guardian correspondent. Steele, for example, lauds the ambassadors' letter opposing Tony Blair's policies: "Here was the voice of a generation of senior Foreign Office Arabists, ranged against a prime minister who did not understand the region." The notion that Arabism is a political tilt - and one that has served both political liberty and our own security peculiarly ill - rather than a disinterested regional specialism doesn't appear to have occurred to Steele. Steele correctly notes the huge numbers of Saddam's victims in the Anfal campaign in 1988 and the crushing of Shi'ah and Kurdish resistance in 1991, but soothingly adds: "These are huge numbers, but the available evidence suggests that Saddam's dictatorship was less harsh on Iraqis in 2003 than it had been a decade earlier." Tell that to the Marsh Arabs, whose numbers fell from 250,000 in 1991 to fewer than 40,000 in 2003, owing to Saddam's prolonged and deliberate genocidal campaigns.
This is, in short, not a useless book but it is a highly partial one. It is marred by a fatalistic and unfalsifiable thesis. In affecting to explain how "they" (i.e. we) lost Iraq, it disregards important countervailing evidence and ignores the strategic debates in Western foreign policy. There are much better books on the subject, some of which Steele himself acknowledges.