Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ought Hillary be held accountable for Iraq's collapse?

The front page of The New York Times book review section is given over to a book called The Unraveling by one Emma Sky. Ms. Sky is British, an "Arabist," and originally an opponent of the invasion of Iraq, who ultimately volunteered to advise British and then American military officers in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Apologies for the block quotation, but it sets up what follows for those of you who cannot get past the pay wall:

Emma Sky has a lovely sense of irony about many things, from her evocative name to her frustrated dreams for Iraq, where, in the first decade of this century, she spent what she thinks of as the most important years of her life advising senior officers in the American military. “Amidst the horror of war, I had experienced more love and camaraderie than I had ever known,” she writes. “I had become part of their band of brothers.”

Many soldiers have felt that way, but Sky was no soldier, and not even American. She had been among those who opposed the war, an Arabist in her mid-30s working for the British Council, a cultural and educational organization. She thought she would go on temporary duty to Iraq after the shock and awe of 2003 to apologize, if she could, and try to help the Iraqi people. This was a common sentiment among Western Arabists at the time: We shouldn’t have done this, but having done it, we must make it work.

Almost against Sky’s better judgment, as she writes in her important and disturbing memoir, “The Unraveling,” she quickly found herself sucked deep into the business of occupation as she tried to sort out the chaos after the fall of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. She thought she would be working with the British in the coalition forces that had participated in the invasion, but they told her to talk to the Americans running the show. She also thought she would be in Baghdad, but wound up about 150 miles to the north in Kirkuk.

Sky made herself useful in whatever way she could. She provided expertise in the region and the language that was appallingly rare in American ranks. Faute de mieux, she began to function very quickly like the Orientalists of the old British Empire — part diplomat, part diviner of local moods and frequent mediator in bitter disputes. She became the indispensable adviser to the United States colonel trying to hold together the explosive, contested Kirkuk region, which sits on 40 percent of Iraq’s enormous oil reserves. As Sky puts it, sardonically, “Within weeks of the fall of Saddam I had found myself governing a province.”

There is a lot in there about her perspective on the American military, her longstanding (professional) relationship with General Ray Odierno, the first collapse between 2003 and 2007, and the ultimate success of the "surge" starting in late 2007 and running in to 2009. But then there is this (bold emphasis added):
Sky and Odierno worked closely with the United States ambassador, Ryan Crocker, an accomplished Arabist in his own right, and Gen. David Petraeus, whose name had become synonymous with sophisticated counterinsurgency. Petraeus told Sky he saw her as a “kindred spirit.” But Crocker and Petraeus were gone by 2009, and when the Obama administration pushed forward with plans to withdraw American forces by 2011, everything started to go to hell again. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his coalition were defeated in parliamentary elections in 2010 by a more centrist, nonsectarian candidate (and an old favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency), Ayad Allawi. But Maliki, by playing his many sectarian cards, managed to hold on to power, and in the process reignited the hideous intercommunal violence most Iraqis hoped was behind them.

Crocker’s successor at the United States Embassy-cum-fortress was Christopher R. Hill, a career diplomat with a long track record in Asia but no feel for the Middle East. He had the backing of Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, but he ­emerges from Sky’s book as the individual most responsible for forfeiting the gains of the previous years when he decided to throw Washington’s weight behind Maliki.

Sky clearly detested Hill: “It was frightening how a person could so poison a place,” she writes. And it appears the feeling was mutual. In a recent piece for Politico defending his record in Iraq, Hill suggests Sky (unnamed but unmistakable as Odierno’s political adviser) was a sucker for complaints by key Sunni members of the government who were being excluded, prosecuted and jailed. Actually, Hill didn’t have much time for people who had served in Iraq before him. The enormous importance of long-term relationships in Middle East politics seems to have escaped Hill, and those relationships were exactly what Sky was all about.

This is rather an amazing couple of paragraphs to appear in the lead book review in the Sunday Times, but every now in then they still practice journalism over there. Hillary is indeed getting away with diplomatic murder right now, with all the mainstream attention to her record as Secretary of State going to her frenetic travel schedule and "public diplomacy" (as if effort were the most important metric), and the tragic sideshow of Benghazi on the right. This is a great waste, for there is much to be learned from Clinton's bottomless failure to accomplish anything important in that job, and her hand in key decisions that have been disastrous for American interests (including the war of choice against Libya, the very confusing signalling in the Syrian debacle, and, now, the collapse of Iraq). The smart GOP presidential candidate will dig more deeply in to Ms. Sky's book to learn more.


The Conservative Wahoo said...

I happened to be at a meeting with Ms. Sky fairly recently, and the entire first twenty minutes of her presentation was given over to a whimsy, left of center, just between us girls (I think she thought we were all of the same mind) treatise on the boorish, military mindset of the American invading Army that she encountered, and then (in fairness), that Army's ability to learn and adapt in meaningful ways. It was a good news story, but delivered with a certain superiority that I was happy to puncture by asking "given the military's ability to learn about the use of tools other than force and your praise to them therefore--did YOU learn anything during your time in Iraq about the VALUE of the use of force? You seem somehow silent on this." Getting her to admit to having her mind changed about the importance of raw power in certain situations was a personal little victory for me.

TigerHawk said...

Good job, sir! And not surprising on her point of view after reading the review, which makes her (apparent) criticism of Ambassador Hill and HRC's involvement all that more interesting.

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