Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions

I find myself in the position of having spent close to a year in Iraq working with some extraordinary individuals — Americans and Iraqis as well as Italians, Brits, and Czechs — individuals who gave their best in hopes of rebuilding Iraq. Some gave their lives. And I have to say that I think most of it has turned out to be for naught.

But by "most" I do not mean "all," and therein lies the rub. There are still things that only America or the "multinational tional force" under our leadership can do that prevent our full disengagement. It was our forces that captured Saddam and eliminated his two sons; it was we who had both the intelligence gence capacity to track down Zarqawi and the air power to kill him. Our presence helps shelter the government and its personnel sonnel from attack, retards the foreign insurgency, and may even, to a lesser extent, moderate indigenous Shiite-Sunni militia activity. Moreover, much of the building and rebuilding of the infrastructure of Iraq is still carried out under American direction and with American funds. Contrary to so much of the banter one hears that points to America as the irritant in Iraq (claiming that if only we would leave, then Iraqis would come together to build a united and peaceful nation), the truth is that our leaving would not give peace a chance, but would give anarchy, chy, mayhem, and full-scale civil war its best chance.

Perhaps the strangest part of the current debate over our continued engagement in Iraq is that both sides are close to holding the same position. The Administration is eager to point to any number of so-called successes-two national elections, a new constitution, some working civic projects, a growing Iraqi civil defense force-and declare that as these items take root, America and American forces can begin to step down. The Administration's opponents read the same news stories but see the events in Iraq as indicative of a country in disarray if not civil war, a bloody nation with a dysfunctional government, a people indifferent to our liberation of them and indignant at our continued presence; they think it's high time for America to pull back. The difference is not so much in the goal — disengagement-as gagement — as in whether to call it a failure and come home or call it a success and come home. Oddly, sadly, tragically, it may be a failure from which we cannot so easily come home, at least not completely. That situation — the need for continued American ican support for both security and development under seriously adverse conditions — may well be the worst of all possible worlds. It may also be the real world.

As I was preparing to leave Iraq in the early summer of 2004, the Defense Department sent around a memo asking those of us on the ground to jot down a paragraph or two on "lessons learned." The thought that anyone could summarize anything of value in a few sentences struck me as preposterous. What did we not foresee? What was inevitable? What did we not understand? stand? Why did we not understand it? What did we do right? Where did we go wrong? Each of these categories demanded investigation, demanded an analysis, not just a few words or, worse, a few fingers pointing at random trying to attach blame. So this book is an attempt to understand what it was that we were hoping to do in Iraq, why it was important, where we succeeded, where we came up short, and, above all, why.