Iraq: People, History, Politics
by Gareth Stansfield
Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2007. 262 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Stansfield, an associate professor of Middle East Politics, is a prolific writer about Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Here, he provides a succinct overview of Iraqi history and politics, with special attention to four key debates: (1) Whether Iraq is artificial; (2) what it means to be an Iraqi; (3) whether there is something that predisposes Iraq to such violence; and (4) by what mechanism democratization or state-building can occur in Iraq. In sum, with the benefit of hindsight, he seeks to explore "why the elements of civil war began to coalesce in the post-2003 environment."
Stansfield's narrative is straightforward. He summarizes early Iraqi history from Uruk, Sumeria, and Akkad through the Ottoman Empire in less than fifteen pages. His expertise is contemporary, and so he misses some pre-modern grounding. Debate over the artificiality of Iraq, for example, should consider the evolution of the concept of Iraq. But Stansfield includes no acknowledgment that in both medieval Arab society and pre-modern Iran, officials and travelers used the term "Iraq" to describe the Fertile Crescent; there was a sense that there was a unit called Iraq. The term was also used in nineteenth-century Ottoman-Iranian diplomatic correspondence. Iraq is not merely the result of melding together three Ottoman provinces.
Subsequent chapters are potted history although Stansfield provides a useful service by interweaving Kurdish history including, for example, discussion of Sheikh Mahmoud's 1919 rebellion in Sulaimanya. Curiously, though, his narrative does not mention the Jewish community, a somewhat strange omission considering that Baghdad was one-quarter Jewish in the early twentieth century. He also misses the farhud, the 1941 pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish Baghdad pogrom that marked the beginning of the end of Iraq's millennia-old Jewish community.
Stansfield prefers to focus on the contemporary but is both inconsistent in methodology and undiscerning in his sourcing. He refers, for example, to CIA support for the nascent Iraqi National Congress but omits the Syrian role vis-à-vis the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He downplays unsavory aspects of Kurdish political history, omitting mention, for example, of the revenue sharing and embezzlement scandals that sparked the 1994 Kurdish factional warfare. He also downplays the continuity of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani's relationship with the Baathist regime in Baghdad, something evident from documents seized and subsequently published after Saddam's downfall.
His treatment of the U.S. policy process appears colored more by British tabloids than fact. He conflates Bush's preemption doctrine with operational links to 9-11 and suggests that Saddam Hussein became synonymous with international terrorism "overnight," ignoring Saddam's long support for and embrace of Palestinian terrorists. Footnotes provided to support his statements often do not do so but rather refer readers to such books as the 640-page Cobra II, the accounts of which do not conform to Stansfield's own. He utilizes other sources such as New York Times Magazine writer David Rieff and is unaware that subsequent documentation shows that the account by Rieff was incomplete and inaccurate. He also relies upon University of Michigan professor Juan Cole on subjects in which Cole, who has never stepped foot in Iraq, conducted no primary research.
Stansfield's conclusions are parochial: Iraq is somewhat artificial, and the 2003 intervention unleashed communal forces that have since pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Furthermore, Stansfield argues, democratization in a country like Iraq is difficult. All told, an unremarkable book which summarizes Iraq broadly but provides no new insight.
 Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
Related Topics: Iraq | Michael Rubin | Spring 2008 MEQ
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