How often do we hear the mantra that what went wrong in Iraq was the absence of a plan for the reconstruction of the country following the invasion? There is a list of familiar villains, not least Donald Rumsfeld, who was eventually forced from office for his failure to anticipate the realities of a country shattered not just by the coalition assault but by the 12 years of severe sanctions that preceded it. Paul Bremer, the bumptious colonial viceroy who decided to disband the Iraqi army (so creating a pool of potential insurgents), and refused to pay officers' pensions (so providing them with motivation), is another. It was Bremer too who insisted on radical de-Ba'athification, apparently oblivious of Ba'athism's ideological roots in pan-Arab nationalism, something far deeper than the brutal dominance of Saddam Hussein.
In this argument we see the outlines of a neocon apologia. The idea was sound, but the execution was poor, hence the disaster. Trust us, we'll do better next time. This is the approach that gets such short shrift from Jonathan Steele in Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (Counterpoint 2008). Argued on the basis of first hand experience of Iraq throughout the period, Steele maintains that given the country's historical experience and social structure, there was no possibility that a prolonged occupation of any kind could have succeeded. Not only that, but those who planned the war should have known this, or should have been so advised by their experts in the field. This leads to three questions: why was an occupation doomed to fail; could a short campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein, followed by speedy withdrawal, have met the coalition's goals; and why were governments, particularly the British government, so badly advised by their diplomatic specialists?
On the first question Steele's case comes down to his statement that "failure to understand this Iraqi patriotism was the single biggest mistake made by Bush and Blair". With not a shred of social science expertise between them, the leaders of the West saw the alternative to Saddam as a society of passive individuals with no thought other than to prosper in a free market context. About Islamism (among both Shias and Sunnis), about Iraqis' long direct experience of British imperialism after 1915 or about their exposure to US actions across the region from Iran to Israel, Bush and Blair knew nothing. They had no idea of the sense of humiliation foreign dominance of their country would be bound to generate in Iraqi minds.
Could the coalition's goals have been met by a hit-and-run attack on the Ba'athist state followed by a rapid handover to relatively benign Iraqi elements? The main weakness of Steele's book is that it sometimes implies that they could. But while the successor state to Saddam in such a scenario might well have reflected Iraqi national aspirations, there is little to suggest that these would have been acceptable to a coalition with a strategy, in Steele's words, "for giving US oil companies control over Iraq's resources and for threatening Iran".
Finally why, to add to the collective professional suicide of the British intelligence establishment over WMD, and of the legal establishment over the lawfulness of the war, did the Foreign Office get the probable Iraqi response to the invasion so spectacularly wrong? It was not inevitable: before the war president Chirac of France warned of "the fragmentation of Iraq, and turmoil throughout the region with Shias being in charge in Baghdad and Tehran". By contrast at the FO "Moqtada was unheard of".
Of course the UK lacked an embassy in Iraq, and therefore immediate engagement with Iraqi society. But Steele hints at another reason: the dominant culture of linguists and regional specialists at the Foreign Office - including the Camel Corps of Arabic speaking officers who had served in the Middle East - had given way to a new breed of management experts. Maybe the Iraq war is what happens when you subordinate professional judgment to organizational goals.