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Book Review by Mark Thomas, February 2008
Jonathan Steele, IB Tauris, £20
Jonathan Steele, the Guardian's foreign correspondent, has written a useful and important book about the occupation of Iraq. In Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq he argues powerfully that the immense catastrophe in Iraq is a product not of poor decisions and mistakes taken by the US occupation - the disbandment of the Iraqi army, for example, is invariably trotted out in most mainstream discussions - but the inevitable product of the very fact of occupation itself. It was doomed from the start, as he puts it.
He recounts how a planeload of senior US personnel flying into Baghdad in May 2003 to staff the occupation administration were all reading books about the US occupation of Germany and Japan after 1945. None seemed to think a refresher in Middle East history or politics might have some bearing on their postings.
The conviction that the US would be welcomed, with sweets and cheers, as liberators was widespread and those at the top with doubts mostly kept quiet. Steele argues persuasively that anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular should have realised things would not go this way and that occupation would provoke deep resentment.
He describes how the brutal and racist behaviour of the occupation in 2003 and 2004 rapidly alienated even those Iraqis prepared to adopt a wait and see approach. He traces well the way the insurgency among Sunnis and Shias developed, and notes the potential for unity across sectarian lines.
Indeed, his chapter on the rise of sectarian conflict is a good and plausible account by and large. He rejects the sloppy racist notion of "ancient hatreds" inevitably reasserting themselves and locates it instead in the devastating impact of the US-led sanctions regime in the 1990s and the actions of the occupation itself. He clearly believes the first step to overcome sectarian conflict would be for US troops to withdraw.
Some irritations remain, however. Steele has a constant need to describe Iraqis' hostility to the occupation in subjective terms, their injured "pride" or "honour", their "sense of resentment", and so on. Since he provides excellent and extensive arguments about why Iraqi rejection of occupation is eminently rational and justified, this is all entirely superfluous to his argument.
Perhaps though this is a reminder that Steele is not an anti-imperialist, but a liberal who's seen the truth and wants to tear away all the remaining justifications used to buttress the continued US and British presence in Iraq.
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