Balanced, panoramic assessment of the Iraq War by former Marine and Reagan administration veteran West (No True Glory, 2005, etc.), who heralds American soldiers as its unsung heroes amid the “fog of Washington.”
The story of the initial years, familiar from other books, is covered expeditiously: America rushed to war in 2003 with limited troops and no postwar plan; proconsul Paul Bremer, inexperienced and isolated, dissolved the Iraqi army and banished Baathists, setting the stage for a Sunni-based insurgency; President Bush remained stubbornly uninvolved in the details. American troops couldn’t easily identify al-Qaeda insurgents who wore civilian clothes, the author notes; this allowed al-Qaeda to incite a civil war by murdering Shiites who then retaliated against the Sunnis. What makes West’s book fresh and exciting is his ability to weave together two narrative strands. Compelling, firsthand accounts of the war, recorded while embedded with the troops, highlight bravery and leadership on the battlefield. By contrast, incisive strategic analyses of the war unearth a fundamental contradiction between pre-surge military strategy, aimed at quickly transitioning counterinsurgency leadership to corrupt Iraqi forces who wouldn’t do the job, and Bush’s policy of winning the war by eradicating all insurgents. The author is indignant at the president’s intellectual laziness, which led to Bush recusing himself from military strategy. West also demonstrates that, by granting complete sovereignty to Iraq, the president allowed sectarian Prime Minister Maliki to undermine the troops’ authority by protecting Shiite militias. When Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, however, Bush finally fired Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, pressured Maliki and launched a surge that partnered American soldiers with local populations to eradicate al-Qaeda in a bottoms-up approach, achieving a reduction in violence. West’s concluding assessment is sobering: America might have to stay for years to consolidate the surge’s fragile gains; a quick exit could lead to chaos.
A timely, eye-opening historical analysis that provides clarity around the difficult choices the next president faces.