One of the stranger domestic cultural subplots of the war in Iraq has been the confidence with which so many politicians, commentators and journalists alike have felt comfortable claiming, often on the basis of the most fleeting experience there, how postwar Iraq is going to turn out. With his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad to American forces, and the Range Rover machismo of his “bring ’em on” response to the first serious signs of a homegrown Iraqi insurgent challenge to the US occupation, President Bush remains the world record-holder for this brand of hubris. But any number of people, from Vice President Cheney down to the most hectoring blowhard on Fox News, have been hard at work making a run for his title.
Mostly, it has been a habit of feeling (and of hype), not of thought. Given the fact that Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the US Central Command, and Gen. George Casey, who commands the multinational forces on the ground in Iraq, have both said publicly that over the past six months the insurgency has remained much the same in terms of its lethality and reach, and that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has said it could go on for as many as twelve years, it is hard to believe the Vice President really thinks it is in its “last throes.” But to the right, it is an article of faith that the United States is winning. The problem is that it has been an article of faith since before the war even began. And by the fall of 2003, six months after Baghdad fell, pro-Administration pundits were already insisting that, as Max Boot, John M. Olin fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, put it at that time, “the world press, which lavished such attention on Iraqi looting back in May, seems largely indifferent to the successful work of rebuilding that has gone on since.”
Boot pointed out such supposedly underreported or misrepresented success stories as what was taking place in Iraq’s Shiite south around the shrine city of Najaf, controlled by the Marines, and in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, controlled by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. By 2004 Americans had their hands full beating back a rebellion by the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and after Baghdad Mosul is now probably the least secure and most heavily insurgent city in all of Iraq. Apparently undeterred, Boot recently published a column in the Los Angeles Times titled “Why the Rebels Will Lose.”
Some of the hard left, or what passes for it in the United States and Britain, has not been much better. An equally ideologically based divination of the Iraqi future has been in effect. The new Iraqi government, which Susan Watkins, writing in New Left Review, called “Vichy on the Tigris,” could not last (it did). The January elections would be a failure (they weren’t). There would be civil war between Shiites and Sunnis (so far not, in no small measure thanks to the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani).
The fact is, no one really knows how things are going to turn out in Iraq, and the certainty with which those who don’t seem to think they do, from President Bush and Paul Wolfowitz to Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, brings to mind Cicero’s remark that he cannot understand how, when two soothsayers meet in the street, they both don’t burst out laughing.
There is, however, a subset of books and articles on Iraq that are worth taking seriously. More limited in scope, they are mostly concerned with what went wrong either in the planning for the war or with the conduct of the US occupation in its aftermath. That things went not just wrong but badly wrong is, after all, perhaps the one thing on which opponents and supporters of the war (outside a lunatic fringe of right-wing bloggers and their audience, that is) can agree. Like the existence or, rather, the nonexistence of an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands, the predictions of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others more or less all the way down the Administration food chain about Americans being welcomed with sweets and flowers, the ease with which order would be established, the speed with which US troops would be withdrawn and the relatively low cost of the entire venture, have all proved to have been mistaken. Indeed, there is something quite startling, perhaps even unique in the annals of US government, about the comprehensiveness of the Bush Administration’s misreading of the postwar situation in Iraq.