Ignorance and ideology

<strong>Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq</strong>

Jonathan Steele <em>I B Tauris, 304pp, £20</em>

In the summer of 2002 an "Iraq peace game", held significantly enough at the US Army War College, foreshadowed some of the developments that were to follow the US-led invasion. The start line was different, given that, in this scenario, the invasion had triggered a military coup in Baghdad. However, the outcome was similar in that the mutually suspicious parties and factions of "Iraqis" came together on one issue only - denunciation of the US occupation.

The collective walkout of the assorted Americans, Iraqis and Europeans all masquerading as Iraqi players in this political drama brought the game to a shuddering halt. Of course, as the smirks of some of the organisers showed, this was actually part of a larger game played by one US government agency against another. They were trying to drive home the point that, in the event of an invasion, the US would be drawn into a full-blown military occupation that would in turn create bitter and widespread opposition in Iraq.

In many respects this is the core of the argument of Jonathan Steele's impressive and powerful book. Unlike many recent books that look chronologically at the build-up to the invasion, the unravelling of the occupation and the subsequent bloody conflict, Steele's account takes a number of major themes and sees how they combined to create the current uncertain condition of Iraq. This allows him to develop a persuasive thesis about the logic of military occupation, supported by a rich array of evidence. In brief, he argues that however sensitive, culturally attuned and subtle the foreign occupiers may be - and in this case they are clearly none of these things - they are still foreign occupiers who are there because of the violence they have used and continue to use against sections of the local population.

As he shows, this brings a number of consequences in its wake: ideas about an early withdrawal evaporate in the face of concerns about the occupying power's prestige; military action to "restore order" takes a fearful toll on local civilians, costing hundreds of lives in Fallujah, Haditha and elsewhere and leading to the incarceration of thousands; resistance builds across the country, some of it armed and violent, some of it merely resentful and subversive of the order that is being imposed.

Furthermore, as Steele's account makes all too clear, the occupying power begins to think it has a right to be there and acts accordingly. The US proconsul Paul Bremer was a very public embodiment of this arrogance, but the rot goes deeper, extending upwards to Washington and London and downwards to many of the US and British personnel in their dealings with Iraqis. Partly fuelled by prejudices about Iraq's inhabitants, partly by ignorance of the history and complexity of Iraqi society, as well as by a telling, and some might argue racist, lack of interest in seriously trying to understand it, the occupiers appear to have seen the country as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It was to be made an example of, in more senses than one. If the Iraqis had the nerve to resist their remaking, then so much the worse for them.

The outcome was the mayhem of the past few years, in which it has indeed been the Iraqis who have paid in blood and shattered lives for the cruel logic of military occupation and the resistance it provoked. This is well captured by Steele in some of the most moving passages of the book, where the power of the picture he builds up through his personal encounters with Iraqis must serve as one of the greatest indictments of the whole illegal venture.

Because of this country's more meagre resources, but also because of an incompetence based on ignorance rather than on ideological fervour, the British occupation of the south came to a fairly rapid accommodation with the powerful and often murderous forces that had been busily colonising public space and institutions in Basra. This has permitted an effective exit for the United Kingdom, even if the grim legacy of its intervention will be felt for some time to come.

For the US, withdrawal is not so straightforward. As Steele points out, even if most of the wild-eyed neocons have been ditched, the American political and military authorities still see the Iraqi government as being on probation. The US having publicly redefined the conflict as one against "al-Qaeda" and "agents of Iran", its presence in Iraq is now portrayed as crucial for US security, justifying huge military bases and obliging all contenders for the White House to declare that the US must not "cut and run". This, of course, has created what Iraqi nationalists, chafing under British occupation, used to refer to delicately as al-wad' ash-shadh, or "the perplexing predicament" - that is, the hindrance to any kind of progress as long as there are, in effect, two governments in Iraq.

Charles Tripp is professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His most recent book is the third edition of "A History of Iraq" (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation