A NY Times reporter proves that we still do not understand Iraq

A new book for the reading pile of folks following the Iraq War: Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, Patrick Cockburn.  This post discusses not the review, but a revealing review of the book by Dexter Filkins in the 11 June issue of The New Republic.

Cockburn’s book shows the ways in which al-Sard and Iraq itself remain mysterious to American, even after five years of war.  Filkins’ review inadvertently provides more evidence that Cockburn is correct.  Filkins covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times from 2003 to 2006. His book, The Forever War, will be published by Knopf in the fall.  It says much about our ability to understand foreign cultures that so experienced an American writes something so rife with unstated biases and clueless comments. 

To put this in context:  Filkins is one of our best.  Most discussions of the Iraq War show less understanding.  Blog discussions show far, far less.

The review opens powerfully, as expected for an essay by a veteran journalist.  After grabbing our attention, he provides a cogent summary of the book.

Muqtada al-Sadr stands for everything in Iraq that we do not understand. The exiles we imported to run the country following Saddam’s fall are suave and well-dressed; Muqtada is glowering and elusive. The exiles parade before the cameras in the Green Zone; Muqtada stays in the streets, in the shadows, surfacing occasionally to give a wild sermon about the return of the hidden twelfth imam. The Americans proclaim Muqtada irrelevant; his face adorns the walls of every teashop in Shiite Iraq. The Americans attack; Muqtada disappears. The Americans offer a deal, and Muqtada responds: only after you leave.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? What does he want? And how many divisions does he have? That we know so little so late about someone so central to the fate of Iraq is an indictment of anyone associated with the American endeavor there. But it is also a measure of Iraq itself: of its complexity, its mutability, its true nature as an always-spinning kaleidoscope of alliances, deals, and double- crosses. Muqtada al-Sadr is not merely a mirror of our ignorance, he is also a window onto the unforgiving land where we have seen so many of our fortunes disappear.

This post will examine just two brief examples, but much of the review falls apart in a smiilar way.

But I am not persuaded that Muqtada is some sort of robed Jeffersonian. Playing the political system is not the same thing as believing in politics. For all his flirtations with the democratic process, the most salient fact about Muqtada al-Sadr is that he has never been able to bring himself to retire the thousands of gunmen who answer his call. And whatever Muqtada’s personal inclinations, the Mahdi Army has been one of the more brutal forces in Iraqi society.

I am not persuaded that Muqtada is some sort of robed Jeffersonian.”

That is a good thing for Muqtada, since 21st century Iraq is not 18th century colonial America.  Jefferson might not last a year in Muqtada’s world.  John Adams — a fiery, Islamic fundamentalist John Adams — might do well.  In a year he would have been running the place, having had most of Iraq’s Arab leaders shot.  After fair trials, of course.  Bush’s attempts to build a Coalition would have been frustrated by that suave globe-trotting Iraqi diplomat, al-Franklin.

the most salient fact about Muqtada al-Sadr is that he has never been able to bring himself to retire the thousands of gunmen who answer his call.”

A very deep insight.  Why has al-Sadr not been the first Iraq leader to disarm his followers?  That would give him good odds of rapidly joining his father and father-in-law in Paradise.

the Mahdi Army has been one of the more brutal forces in Iraqi society.”

And Filkins knows this how?  Given the carnage — crime, executions, torture — that has wrecked Iraq since the invasion, Filkins ability to draw such fine distinctions among the various teams is impressive.  Perhaps by “one of the more” he means “just like the most of the other major militias doing ethnic cleansing in Iraq.”  That seems likely, but it has less force than Filkins statement.

“The fight in Basra may have changed some things for good. Maliki appears to have broken finally with Muqtada.”

No surprise that when all is said, a New York Times reports sides with the well-dress English-speaking leaders of Iraq — so responsive to the wishes of the US and Iran — rather than the nationalistic guy with the big popular following.  And we wonder why insurgencies last so long, why the puppets we support are not loved by their people.

We invade Iraq, build a chain of large, permanent bases, press for an oil law more foreigner-friendly than Canada’s — and are astonished that a nationalistic leader arises to oppose us?  How many of the bad traits of the Mahdi Army result from its outlaw role, which we and our Iraq government forced upon them — probably because they oppose our long-term occupation of Iraq? 

We treat the Mahdi Army as outlaws, saying they are bad guys.  If the positions were reversed, would the Badr Brigade act like Boy Scouts if outlawed?  Like so many of our actions in Iraq, we are shadow boxing.  Our actions create inevitable reactions, to which we react with surprise and violence.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Brief!  Stay on topic!  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling)

For more information about the Iraq War

  1. My posts about the war
  2. Important articles about the Iraq War– include some about our use of airpower.
  3. Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them

1 thought on “A NY Times reporter proves that we still do not understand Iraq”

  1. I find your post very compelling, but I feel I should note previous posts have seemed to confirm the reporting of various warbloggers, which are congruous with the NYT review in not really caring WHY Sadr is popular, merely that the US/Iran puppet appears to have scored a victory over him.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is an important point! War bloggers and journalists (the former an amateur version of the latter) report what is happening. But “just the facts, ma’m” does not get us far when looking at multi-party 4gw wars like Iraq.

    Assembling the facts into a coherent picture, set in a meaningful context, requires analysis. Doing so on the unstated or even unconscious assumption that all cultures are more or less alike will yield some bizarre views, as seen in this TNR review.

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