Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, many American academics complained about being ignored by policymakers. Professors Cottam and Huseby of Washington State University unwittingly illustrate why that was the case. To explain the actions of the Anbar tribes prior to, during, and immediately after the occupation of Iraq, the authors of Confronting Al Qaeda are guilty of overreliance on faulty secondary sources, general sloppiness, a lack of both cultural and historical knowledge of the region, and an almost cartoonish understanding of U.S. policymaking.
Cottam and Huseby apply political science methodology to rather limited opinion surveys of tribal sheikhs and U.S. marines. In the case of dialogue with local leaders, the subjects game the interviews rather than answering forthrightly. Nor do the authors bother to check their interviews against the many available Arabic sources—Iraqi government documents, local websites and newspapers, among others. Their own constrained perspective and assumptions also distort reality. They maintain, for example, that conspiratorial thinking began with the invasion, a claim belied by decades of Baathist propaganda and incitement. The authors also assume the insurgency that erupted after the U.S. invasion was reactive rather than pre-planned, despite reams of Saddam-era documents and interviews with insurgents showing how its groundwork was laid before U.S. troops arrived and irrespective of American behavior.
Confronting Al Qaeda is replete with inaccurate facts and downright bizarre claims: No, the United States did not view the Anbar tribes as "rogue" elements on par with North Korea. In fact, there was a robust debate about how best to balance Sunni Arab desires with the 80 percent of the country which was either Shiite or Kurd. Paul Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense, not assistant secretary. Tom Warrick, the State Department official who led the "Future of Iraq" study, indeed did not play an active role in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, but his group's work was not "lost" as it was published and consulted by Jay Garner, the initial occupation chief. On the issue of de-Baathification: Yes, some Sunni Arabs complained about it, but others who had been victimized by the Baath Party celebrated it. Most significantly, the conventional wisdom that the policy was a big mistake is belied by facts: Violence often accompanied the reintegration of Baathist officials, for example, in the November 2004 Mosul uprising while the failure of the Fallujah Brigade was actually due to the presence of reintegrated Baathists, who bolstered rather than fought insurgents.
The authors conclude that the tribes do what is in their interest at any given time. That is about as ground-breaking as the notion that the sun rises in the east. Such insights do not have much policy utility because the difficulty for policymakers has always been in balancing various local interests with a national whole. As important is the recognition that tribal leaders seldom speak with one voice even when their positions are not being constantly contested from within.
Cottam and Huseby may congratulate themselves in the belief that their work contributes to "the historical record of the Awakening movement by providing the perspective of the tribal leaders and Americans ... in al Anbar," but this is true only as long as their study is used exclusively in the environment of rarefied academia. Policymakers charged with dealing with the actual players and circumstances will find the work useless for understanding regional tribalism, the challenge posed by al-Qaeda, and most importantly, the reality that is Iraq.