“How had I ended up in such a role…? I had come to Iraq to apologise for the war. Now I was sitting like some colonial administrator in the office that before the war had served as the governor of Kirkuk’s. I was seen as the new symbol of power…”
In early 2003, British peace activist and humanitarian campaigner Emma Sky volunteered her services to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Initially seconded on a three-month posting by the British Council, Sky soon became one of the most influential British figures in occupation-era Iraq, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services. Now a senior fellow at Yale University, Sky is perhaps best known for her role as political advisor to the US military Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, and her contribution to the US military war effort during the 2007 troop surge.
Part memoir, part potted history of recent political events in Iraq, Sky’s new book The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq weaves together threads of personal experience with a detailed account of the various strategies and failings of the occupation forces. In particular, it paints a grim and at times highly critical picture of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and wider US policy in Iraq, and of the alarming level of incompetence and disinterest among diplomats and military generals alike.
One particular episode involving US Vice-President Jo Biden, lays bare the lack of political will to engage with the intricacies of Iraqi politics at the highest level. During a visit to Baghdad, Sky writes that Biden became impatient at her attempts to explain the nuances of Iraq’s political and social landscape and “could not fathom” that there was an alternative paradigm to primordial sectarianism to explain the country’s factionalism. Uninterested in her comments, Sky claims that Biden compared the problems in Iraq to those of Ireland and the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, simply stating: “My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.”
Another high-ranking figure criticised by Sky is US ambassador to Baghdad Chris Hill, who she claims had been wrongly persuaded to take the post by Hillary Clinton.
“It was clear that Hill, though a career diplomat, lacked regional experience and was miscast in the role in Baghdad,” writes Sky. “In his staff meetings, Hill made clear how much he disliked Iraq and Iraqis.”
Despite such scathing assessments of US policy and strategy in Iraq, Sky is rather more positive about the role of the US military in the country – even going so far as to praise the “values and sense of humanity” of the soldiers she worked and lived so closely with (a statement that is hard to swallow in the wake of the revelations of the Iraq Cables). Indeed, the book as a whole reads almost like a eulogy to the US military while simultaneously outlining the incompetence and blunderings of the occupation as a whole – an incongruous mix that occasionally feels as if hard facts regarding the realities of the military occupation of Iraq have been side-lined in favour of biographical detail and personal sentiment.
Moreover, while Sky’s understanding and passion for the people and places of the Middle East is commendable, her lyrical descriptions of the region sometimes read more like passages from colonial-era Orientalist texts rather than the cool analyses of an academic. Thus, her descriptions of “inhaling deeply the smells of coffee and vegetables, and feasting my eyes on the colours and people” in the old city of Kirkuk, as well as her self-professed love of “waking to the call to prayer; shopping in the markets; inhaling the smell of coffee; and sharing plates with complete strangers who were always so warm and hospitable” do more to reinforce, rather than combat, existing Western stereotypes about the exoticism of the Arab world. Perhaps she is aware of such ironies, as in her self-deprecating description of herself as the new “Miss Bell”, in reference to the infamous Oriental Secretary and imperial spy who served the British High Commission in Baghdad during the early twentieth century, Gertrude Bell.
At once a deeply personal and highly political book The Unravelling presents one of the most astute chronicles of British and US failures in Iraq, and provides a rare first-hand account from inside both the political and military command structure during the key years of the occupation. Although much of the information in the book will come as little surprise to those familiar with the recent history of Iraq, the clarity of writing, strong sense of irony and high level of biographical interest make this a worthy read.