Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco
by David L. Phillips
Boulder: Westview Press, 2005. 292 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Losing Iraq illustrates what went wrong with planning for post-liberation Iraq although not for the reasons its author, a Council on Foreign Relations staffer, intends. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the State Department hired Phillips to moderate seminar discussions among Iraqis. He uses this limited experience to conclude that the cause for difficulty in post-liberation Iraq was not lack of planning but rather a failure to listen. "How could such noble intentions [Iraq's freedom] go so wrong?" he asks. "The White House and Pentagon political appointees thought they could liberate a county without talking to those they were liberating," he replies.
Phillips appears unaware that every Iraqi who met with him also visited the Pentagon, National Security Council, and Central Intelligence Agency. U.S. officials would meet almost daily at the National Security Council, chaired by officials such as Zalmay Khalilzad, then the president's special assistant for Iraq, and Stephen Hadley, then-deputy national security advisor.
Rather than researching and analyzing prewar planning, Losing Iraq becomes a testament to the author's ego and pettiness, features that caused Iraqis and U.S. officials alike to push Phillips aside. He describes Kanan Makiya, with whom he clashed on issues including de-Baathification, as poisoned by neoconservatives who transformed him from an academic to a polemicist. Most Iraqis and Americans differed and questioned whether Phillips's hostility was due to jealousy of Makiya's prominence in fields in which Phillips sought to compete. Phillips also writes that he initiated ideas like a Kirkuk commission to adjudicate competing property claims but was ignored. Actually, such a commission was up and running weeks before his epiphany.
Phillips revises events liberally, saying, for example, that he and Ryan Crocker, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, opposed the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority because it did not empower Iraqis. Actually, Crocker opposed the transfer of sovereignty.
The irony of Phillips's argument is hubris. He chides Bush administration officials for not listening to Iraqis, but he himself did not bother to travel to Baghdad in the wake of Iraq's liberation. Rather, as revealed in a Wall Street Journal review by Rob Pollock, he lifted descriptions from newspapers. His experience in Iraq was limited to a few brief trips to Iraqi Kurdistan before the war, the sheltered guest of a Kurdish politician.
Losing Iraq may try to castigate the White House but instead becomes an example of the arrogance about which so many Iraqis complain. Phillips treats Iraq as a template upon which to lay down his theories. The Iraqi voice is subsumed to his own. If the White House really lost Iraq—the success of the Iraqi elections suggests otherwise—it was because it subordinated the voice of Iraqis to outside advisors like Phillips, more interested in pumping up their own importance than in the welfare of Iraq.
 May 10, 2005.
Related Topics: Iraq, US policy | Michael Rubin | Winter 2006 MEQ
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