Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007); 518 pp. Paperback. US$ $20.00, UK£9.99
There is no shortage of personal testimonies relating the experiences of western diplomats, military personnel, political appointees, and even latter-day mercenaries working in security companies who have served in Iraq since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. Countless other books have been written with an eye to recount the tormenting sorrows and anguished pains that have befallen the Land of the Two Rivers since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime. But Ali A. Allawi’s brilliant narrative, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, stands out amid this torrent of publications. Allawi’s account is more than a mere ‘what went wrong’ narrative, and certainly much more than a chronicle of the disappointments and frustrations borne out of the marked discrepancies between Iraqi realities on the ground and the expectations of a returning former exiled activist opposed to Saddam’s regime. He provides a unique insider’s perspective on the confluence of international, regional and local factors, as well as diverse personalities and pent-up parochial identities and passions, which shaped the disastrous situation in post-invasion Iraq. But morose apprehensions echo throughout the fascinating details as Allawi takes his readers down the calamitous descent from the premature euphoria of the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam’s regime to the rampant corruption, widespread inefficiency and atavistic savagery that characterized post-Saddam Iraq.
Allawi, who held three consecutive cabinet portfolios – trade, defense and finance – in the nascent political order that emerged in the wake of the US-led invasion, is extraordinarily frank and forthright in his poignant criticism of American policy in Iraq, especially as it relates to the US’s abject ignorance of conditions in the country. The author is at pains to show that the genie of Iraqi sectarianism was neither let out of the bottle by the coalition nor emerged all of a sudden, with no antecedent causative factors. Allawi maintains that, “When the Coalition arrived in Baghdad on 9 April 2003, it found a fractured and brutalized society, presided over by a fearful, heavily armed minority. The post 9/11 jihadi culture that was subsequently to plague Iraq was just beginning to take root. The institutions of the state were moribund; the state exhausted. The ideology that had held Ba’athist rule together had decayed beyond repair” (p. 16).
A pyrotechnic recipe for inter-communal strife was percolating beneath the surface in pre-invasion Iraq. In Allawi’s words, “the real dangers – of divisiveness, vengefulness, deeply held grievances and bottled-up ethnic and sectarian passions – lurked underneath” (p. 16). Notwithstanding the image of strength and unity projected to the outside world by Saddam’s propaganda machine, the reality is that despotism in Ba’athist Iraq bred total failure at the level of the state whose repressive apparatus hid an utter void in terms of political legitimacy. But despotism in Iraq not only depleted state legitimacy; it also tore at the country’s social fabric, thus pushing Iraqi society down the slippery slope of implosion. According to Allawi, “The state removed the elements that kept a vigorous Shi’a identity alive in parallel to a Sunni-dominated state. Nationalisations, emigration and expulsions, destroyed the Shi’a mercantilist class; the state monopoly on education, publishing and the media removed the cultural underpinnings of Shi’a life; and the attack on Najaf and the religious hierarchy came close to completely eliminating the hawzas of Iraq. When the state embarked on its mass killings after the 1991 uprisings, Iraq became hopelessly compromised in the minds of most of the Shi’a. If the former Iraqi state defined Iraq, then few people in the Shi’a community – and fewer still amongst the Kurds – would have anything to do with it” (pp. 145-146).
Hence, in hindsight, it is not totally unexpected that “the fall of the regime confronted Iraqis with the question of where their true loyalties and identities lay” (p. 132). Allawi argues that the nightmare of ethno-sectarian tensions was already on the march under Ba’ath Party dictatorship, which instituted policies that amplified narrow communal identities – ethnic, sectarian and tribal – and intensified long-simmering animosities. “The raw and naked fissures inside Iraqi society,” he writes, “became wider and deeper in the decades of Ba’athist rule, and with the removal of the heavy hand of the dictatorship they emerged into the light of day” (p. 133).
Mass bombings and indiscriminate killings aggravated communal grievances that had been building up for years. So too did the conduct of politics along sectarian lines in the post-Saddam period. In a series of chapters, Allawi sketches the eruption of Iraq’s vast wells of ethno-sectarian hatreds. His account of this infernal ordeal ends in 2006 when sectarian cleansing became the order of the day in Baghdad and vast parts of Iraq. A deep sense of grief and disappointment becomes acutely palpable as the narrative proceeds to reveal a distressed society caught in the throws of the effects of sanctions, internal repression, war, foreign occupation and civil strife.
Allawi is unreservedly critical of George W. Bush’s seemingly infinite stream of miscalculations and blunders in Iraq. “Bush may well go down in history as presiding over one of America’s great strategic blunders,” he says. “Thousands of servicemen have been the casualties of a failed policy” (p. 460). The author is equally critical of the haughty and condescending app-roach of the American proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III. This is clear, for instance, in his account of Bremer’s first meeting on May 16, 2003, with the Iraqi leadership council, known as the G-7, which included Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani, Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barazani, Iraqi National Congress chairman and then-Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi National Accord chairman and Central Intelli-gence Agency favorite Ayad Allawi, Sunni politician Naseer al-Chadirchi, then-Islamic Da’awa Party spokesman Ibrahim al-Ja’afari, and representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now Sup-reme Islamic Iraqi Council) ‘Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi. “Brem-er’s meeting with the G-7 was one in which he was to invoke his powers in no uncertain terms, and set the relationship between the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], the dominant party, with himself in charge, and the Iraqi leadership group, the subordinate party” Allawi writes. “Bremer stated emphatically that his orders had the force of law under the powers that the USA and UN had given him. The CPA was to set overall policy and assume responsibility for managing the country’s affairs” (p. 109).
It is not only the neoconservatives’ vainglorious conceit and arrogance that Allawi decries. He also condemns the corruption and inefficiency of the CPA that was stoked with inexperienced political appoin-tees. The CPA advisers and staffers who were attached to various Iraqi ministries and government agencies “acted not so much as liaisons but as actual administrators, even though some insisted on maintaining the fiction of Iraqi involvement in key decisions … Some were quite competent and effective. Others were inexperienced, or ideologically driven, or employed because of whom they knew in Washington. The more glaring of the inappropriate appointments would ultimately leave, or be asked to leave, but in the early days of the CPA they were to be found at all levels” (120). Allawi also catalogues the failures of the CPA in three areas of policy reform essential for creating an atmosphere conducive for reconstruction: “the reform of the price support and subsidies system that dominated the state’s expenditures” (p. 263); the reform of “the Public Distribution System (PDS) – or the food ration programme;” (p. 264); and “undertaking any reforms of the state-owned enterprises” (p. 264).
In a similar vein, Allawi expresses moral outrage over the waste, inefficiency and corruption of the fledgling Iraqi political order. He devotes Chapter 20 of his book, entitled “Corruption and the Potemkin State” (pp. 348-369), to an exploration of the sordid details of rampant sleaze in post-Saddam Iraq. As he sets out on his search for explanations, the author examines both the feeble institutional structures of government accountability as well as the role of the country’s new political class in shaping this predicament. The ineffectiveness of such governmental anti-corruption bodies as the Office of the Inspector Generals, the Integrity Commission, and the Bureau of Supreme Audit, created an environment conducive for out-of-control corruption. “However, the weakness of the state institutions of accountability and enforcement do not, in and of themselves, explain the explosion in corrupt practices, bordering on the open plunder of the state’s resources … A more complete explanation has to include the legacy systems inherited from the Saddamist years. More importantly, it was the appalling ethical standards of those who were catapulted to positions of power and authority that must carry most of the obloquy” (p. 351).
It is only natural that such a political ethos that gives rise to a sea of slime and corruption of such a magnitude would also help transform the political landscape into a snake-pit of intrigue, deception and multiple double-crossing. A conspiratorial culture has long assumed pride of place in Iraqi politics. Political life in post-Saddam Iraq took this culture to new heights, as politicians from various ethnic and sectarian communities vied mercilessly among themselves over positions of power and influence. Ultimately, a solid national consensus over the future course of the country became ever more elusive. The process of negotiating, drafting and passing a constitution exemplifies this point. The document passed in a national referendum “had all the hallmarks of a series of deals by political operatives. On the other hand, the constitution did stumble on the elements of a new Iraqi compact: civil and human rights; decentralisation; wealth-sharing, and a fairer share for the country’s historically disadvantaged people. But these were not sufficient to dispel the gloom and despondency of the Sunni Arab community” (p. 417).
With its fascinating insider details, Allawi’s book is a definitive history of the murky world of politics that transformed the post-Saddam period into an epoch that is mired in a string of crises. The narrative is as unusually devastating and incisive in its revelations as it is candid and dispassionate. His arresting treatment of the dynamics of Iraq’s socio-political landscape in the post-invasion period is not only comprehensive but also well-researched and rich in details.