Thursday, December 14, 2023

Review Missions Accomplished? The United States and Iraq since World War I

Hahn, Peter, Missions Accomplished? The United States and Iraq since World War I, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012


 

When Americans talk about Iraq they usually only discuss the period from the 2003 invasion to the present. History Professor Peter Hahn tried to fill in that gap in knowledge with Missions Accomplished? The United States and Iraq since World War I by covering U.S.-Iraq relations from the latter’s founding in 1920 to the start of the Obama administration. His history of early relations is important because they are rarely mentioned. When he gets to the Iran-Iraq War the book repeats the conventional wisdom on how Washington dealt with Baghdad. The author isn’t partisan but is pro-government repeating how each administration approached Iraq. That leads to some major problems when it comes to topics such as weapons of mass destruction and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It ends up undermining what Hahn accomplished in the first half of Missions Accomplished?

 

The best part of Profession Hahn’s book is his history of early U.S.-Iraq relations. Initially Washington followed the United Kingdom since it had created Iraq and was the main power in the country. Thus the Americans backed the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty that ensured British power in the country and was behind England in the 1941 Anglo-Iraq War. That led to problems however because it meant the U.S. supported the monarchy which refused to carry out any serious reforms as pressure was rising from the public to make major changes to the economy and politics. That led to the 1958 coup and a series of military leaders.

 

The U.S. was largely uninvolved in Iraq during the reigns of General Qasim, Colonel Arif, his brother and General Bakr. When Iraq was brought up administrations were mostly concerned with the growth of the Iraqi Communist Party and the Soviet Union’s ties with Baghdad due to the Cold War. Washington also believed the Iraqi governments were unstable and susceptible to coups.  The U.S. was far more interested in other issues in the region such as the Arab-Israeli conflict so Iraq was not a priority. Barely anyone has written about how America approached Iraq from its founding up the 1970s. That’s the biggest addition Missions Accomplished? makes to the literature on Iraq. The author shows how Washington went from following England’s lead to not being very interested in the country at all.

 

The next half of the book adds nothing to histories on Iraq other than summing up the official line from the U.S. government. Thus Hahn talks about how the Reagan administration tilted towards Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War fearing an Iranian victory and the spread of the Iranian Revolution. The Bush administration continued to push for greater ties with Saddam only for him to invade Kuwait in 1990. That led to over a decade of containment policies based upon two no fly zones, sanctions and U.N. weapons inspectors, support for which wanted at the end of the 1990s as regime change became a major issue in policy discussions. That led President Bush to change direction and decide to remove Saddam shortly after 9/11. This doesn’t differ much from many other books on this period. This is the only time he breaks from the White House because he believes that Bush quickly chose to invade Iraq despite all his rhetoric about diplomacy.

 

The author adds some criticisms of each period. For instance, the conventional wisdom on the 1990s was that sanctions were failing by the end of the decade and Iraq still had WMD. Hahn quotes longtime State Department official Richard Haas who countered that containment actually worked better than anyone knew. Iraq had given up working on WMD and was no longer a threat to the region. Most of Hahn’s history however is based upon the official line from each administration and supports how they saw Iraq.

 

This is also where the book runs into major problems. The biggest was that Hahn said that Iraq still had WMD programs in the 1990s but calls them “dysfunctional” and “impotent.” It’s not until the U.S. occupation that he reverses himself and says Iraq had no WMD stockpiles or programs anymore. He said Saddam didn’t come clean about his weapons when U.N. inspectors returned in late 2002 which was what the Bush administration claimed but Saddam did say he had no more weapons of mass destruction and repeatedly told that to the United Nations. Another time he said that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had some major successes in Iraq such as rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. That is completely false as services and oil were still below pre-war levels by the time the CPA closed its doors in 2004. Last, he never mentioned that the main goal of the Bush White House up to 2007 was to withdraw. Instead he has quotes by the president that he believed in victory. That was because the president didn’t actually understand what the policy of his government was. These are all examples of how Hahn relied upon the official U.S. stance on Iraq. The dealing with WMD was the most glaring as he repeatedly claims Iraq still programs when he knew that wasn’t true. His unwillingness to step away from Washington undermines the book.

 

Missions Accomplished? is very uneven. The first half is the most interesting because there are not many that cover how the U.S. approached Iraq from 1920 to 1980. This was when America went from a follower of the British to not being that involved in Iraq. The next part falters as it largely repeats what the Bush, Clinton and the second Bush White Houses said about Baghdad. Most people already know what those administrations did. More importantly he doesn’t point out one of the major causes of the 2003 invasion, WMD, did not exist until the U.S. found out itself in 2004. Hahn wrote that the argument that Iraq was connected with Al Qaeda was always tenuous but his failure to call out the WMD fiasco until later in the book raises questions of whether Missions Accomplished? is worthwhile to read. It would seem that only a novice looking for a quick review of this time period would get something out  of the latter section.

 

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