After news of the tragic death of Michael Hastings on Tuesday, June 18, 2013, The Majalla remembers his contribution to investigative journalism and his tireless efforts to portray a balanced version of events while reporting from Baghdad for Newsweek from 2005 to 2007. In this piece, originally published in The Majalla on April 12, 2010, Hastings speaks of his frustration over the American perspective on the success of the war in Iraq.
Americans think they won the war in Iraq. Scratch that: a significant number of American officials, media pundits and politicians have taken it upon themselves to convince Americans that a great victory has been won in Baghdad. This might come as a shock to those who live outside of the United States—perhaps the notion might even be perplexing to those Americans who don’t live inside the Washington, DC, and New York bubble, the insular home of policymakers and leading editorialists. Certainly, as an American myself—who has spent a considerable time in Iraq lately—the potency of the propaganda campaign caught me somewhat by surprise.
The preemptive victory parade started last month on the cover of Newsweek. American readers were treated to a picture of George W. Bush walking across an aircraft carrier (the same aircraft carrier from his infamous “Mission Accomplished” photo). Blasted across the cover were the words: VICTORY AT LAST. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist and one of the most enthusiastic and influential war supporters, followed up Newsweek’s cheers with his own essay titled: “It’s Up to Iraqis Now. Good Luck.” Friedman wrote that the war had vindicated the “gut instinct” of the former president, confirming that Iraqis “craved democracy.” As for whether the war was worth it, he said, was a question for “historians to sort out.” By the end of the month, Senator John McCain had weighed in on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, saying Iraq would serve as “an example to other countries in the Middle East.”
The cause for the latest declaration of victory was last month’s election, where former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya bloc narrowly beat out current Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Party. The elections were a success, Americans were told, because there were only thirty-eight Iraqis killed on election day, and only a few dozen attacks. The reemergence of Allawi, once on the CIA’s payroll, also stoked hopes in Washington of an end to sectarianism. The country has now entered into what will be a messy and occasionally violent government formation process, likely to last until the end of the summer.
What the government will look like in the end is uncertain—there are huge hurdles to overcome if either Maliki or Allawi wants to take the prime minister’s job. But what’s clear is this: sectarian politics isn’t over. In fact, the vote split along very familiar sectarian lines, with Sunnis backing Allawi in the north and west (though a Shi’ite, the former Ba’athist is seen as representative of the Sunni Arab minority); Shi’ites backing Maliki, Moqtada Al-Sadrists, or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in Baghdad and in the south; and Kurds backing only Kurdish candidates. Also troubling is that rather than an endorsement of democracy, Maliki and Allawi’s appeal is that of the strongman, a Saddam–lite. Former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told the Washington Post that both men represented “two sides of the same coin” in a country seemingly trending towards “authoritarianism,” not democracy.
None of this detail really matters, though, to those in the US claiming a win. Most of the US foreign policy establishment supported the war, and they’ve always been desperate for any evidence to justify their bad judgment. But what’s happening does mark an important shift in the American debate on Iraq. The fierce policy arguments that raged for years are essentially over—the remaining question, really, is just how many American troops will be there after 2011. For the US, the war is winding down, unlike for Iraq, which will be stuck in an ongoing conflict for years to come, averaging about three hundred deaths a month now.
The new debate is over how Americans will remember the war. It’s a debate over the narrative of the war itself, of how we believe the war has ended. It doesn’t matter that it’s mainly themselves Americans are trying to convince—it’s hard to find any policy thinkers in the Middle East or Europe or Asia who think anything resembling a victory has occurred in Baghdad. But rather than admitting it was a mistake and swearing never to make such a catastrophic foreign policy blunder again, we’re already seeing a huge push from the US foreign policy and media circles to slap a happy ending on what has been, and always will be, a thoroughly tragic story. We don’t need to wait for historians to sort that one out.