New York: Encounter Books, 2007. 202 pp. $25.95 (cloth).

The measure of success in the Iraq war has undergone a curious progression. Early on, the Bush administration held up the vision of a peaceful, prosperous, pro-Western Iraq as its benchmark. But the torture chambers of Saddam Hussein were replaced by the horrors of a sadistic sectarian war and a fierce insurgency that consumed thousands of American lives. And the post-invasion Iraqi regime, it turns out, is led by Islamist parties allied with religious militias and intimately tied to the belligerent Iranian regime. The benchmark, if we can call it that, then shrank to the somewhat lesser vision of an Iraqi government that can stand up on its own, so that America can stand down. But that did not materialize, either. So we heard that if only the fractious Sunni and Shiite factions in the Iraqi government could have breathing space to reconcile their differences, and if only we could do more to blunt the force of the insurgency, that would be progress. To that end, in early 2007, the administration ordered a “surge” of tens of thousands more American forces to rein in the chaos in Iraq.

Today, we hear John McCain and legions of conservatives braying that we are, in fact, winning (some go so far as to say we have already won). Why? Because the “surge” has reduced the number of attacks on U.S. troops to the levels seen a few years ago (when the insurgency was raging wildly) and the number of Iraqis slaughtering their fellow countrymen has taken a momentary dip. Victory, apparently, requires only clearing out insurgents (for a while) from their perches in some neighborhoods, even though Teheran’s influence in the country grows and Islamists carve out Taliban-like fiefdoms in Iraq.

The goals in Iraq “have visibly been getting smaller,” observes John Agresto, a once keen but now disillusioned supporter of the campaign (p. 172). Iraq, he argues contra his fellow conservatives, has been a fiasco. “If we call it ‘success,’ it’s only because we’ve lowered the benchmark to near zero” (p. 191).

Explaining the Iraq fiasco is Agresto’s project in Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. During 2003 and 2004, while the insurgency built momentum, he was a civilian advisor helping revive Iraq’s higher education system. The book recounts his dealings with Iraqis and his observations on why a policy he had so passionately endorsed turned into a horrendous tragedy. What makes this book distinctive, and particularly illuminating, is its focus on the fundamental idea driving the war. Whereas other Americans returning from Iraq have offered explanations for the problems in terms of superficialities—for example, the character flaws of specific officials or leaders—Agresto recognizes that the purpose of the Iraq campaign was to enact a specific ideal. . . .

The point of the war, he writes, was not to enrich Big Oil, nor benefit Israel, nor “whatever the view of the month” happens to be. And while the Bush administration “may have had to highlight the issue of WMDs in its presentations before the U.N. and other international bodies . . . , finding and destroying such weapons was not something I or most of the civilians and soldiers I worked with in Iraq ever thought central to our going” (pp. 5–6). The goal was to fulfill the Bush administration’s altruistic mission of lifting Iraqis out of tyranny and poverty and ignorance; it was, in Agresto’s words, to “help secure the liberty of others . . .” (p. 9).

By Agresto’s own account, the military operations were prosecuted in compliance with the goal of serving Iraqis. He recounts the “surgical” bombing raids that spared much of the country’s infrastructure. “The war was fought so precisely, so carefully,” he observes, “that the only pictures of military destruction I was able to take while I was there were photos of former Baathist government buildings and military or communications facilities. The cities and towns were intact; homes and schools survived” (p. 173).

One of many appalling and little-reported facts Agresto reveals in his narrative is that the devastation that “turned a country on the skids into rubble” was the work, not of Americans (as commonly believed), but of Iraqi looters. They marauded through “not just the universities, but all the schools, all hospitals, and virtually all public buildings, and not a few private homes.” At Mustansiriya University, for instance, vandals ripped electrical wiring out of the walls and tore out plumbing fixtures; what they couldn’t sell or use (e.g., books) they torched (p. 77).

The aftermath of the invasion itself left “no war-ravaged homeless rummaging through garbage cans, killing each other for crusts” (p. 174). On the contrary, he notes, “It would be hard to imagine a war fought, at the start, with greater care or with greater concern for non-combatants than Operation Iraqi Freedom” (p. 173).

Yet this care and concern, Agresto discovered, was not for the latent freedom lovers he and so many others expected to meet.

In daily conversations with Iraqis from all walks of life, Agresto came to understand the Iraqi mindset. A number of anecdotal portraits and snatches of conversations reveal the typical Iraqi mind as profoundly infused with pre-modern, tribalist religion. He encountered Sunni Iraqis (including a university professor) who openly voiced hostility akin to racism toward Shiite Iraqis, regarding them as subhuman, degenerate heretics. Agresto tells of a Sunni man whom he knew who went on the pilgrimage to Mecca and by chance found himself among a group of Shiite pilgrims. Hearing them sing a hymn expressing their unfavorable view of the archangel Gabriel, the Sunni man was deeply revolted. “These people are not real Muslims,” he told Agresto. “These people are heretics, all of them. They shouldn’t be allowed to sing that.” Then the man’s voice grew darkly quiet, “They shouldn’t be allowed” (p. 53).

Agresto’s experiences in post-invasion Iraq disabused him of an article of faith underlying the Bush crusade: the idea that a “universal hunger for freedom” is innately planted in all mankind. In reality, the prevailing ideological trend in Iraq—as in the Middle East generally—is totalitarian Islam (which he calls radicalized Islam). When Iraq’s universities reopened, Agresto reports, zealous students seized control, beating and murdering “unIslamic” professors and other students. The power of Islamists on campuses—as throughout Iraq—grew so fierce that even female Christian students, in self-preservation, took to wearing Islamic head scarves. The Islamist enforcers worked in league with off-campus religious militias loyal to larger jihadist outfits, such as Moktadr al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

It was not supposed to work this way: On the view of the Bush administration, once Iraqis were given the option, they would rush to embrace liberty. Washington thus gave Iraqis a free hand to draft a new constitution. But the Iraqis enshrined Islamic law as the government’s cardinal principle. The Supreme Federal Court of Iraq can overturn a law “not only if it violated the words of the constitution but also if it violates ‘the established provisions of Islam.’” This court, Agresto complains, is an imitation of the twelve-member theocratic “Guardians Council” of the totalitarian Islamic regime in Tehran (p. 118).

Iraq, Agresto suggests, is steps away from theocratic rule.

What went wrong? Agresto blames the proponents of the campaign for failing to understand the Iraqi mindset. This step in his compelling argument brings to light important truths that proponents of the administration’s policy evade. A telling example: Washington embraced Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Shiites in Iraq, as a friendly, “moderate” political figure, but Agresto dismisses that view as deluded. The hugely influential cleric, it turns out, refused to meet with any Americans, but sat down with any anti-American antagonist. Demanding that all public legislation be based on Islamic law, Sistani condemned an interim Iraqi constitution because it protected the rights of the Kurds and secured the property rights of Jews. The “very first time I heard, in all my months there, an anti-Semitic diatribe,” recounts Agresto, “it was from the Grand Ayatollah. One word from Sistani might prevent the killing of journalists and Western civilians in Basra, stop the frightened exodus of Christians from all of Southern Iraq, and restrain the imposition of sectarian dogmatism now rolling over Iraq’s schools and universities. There is no such word” (p. 101). Sistani, the book suggests, is a theocrat-in-waiting.

Agresto identifies a second factor toward explaining the situation in Iraq: The campaign was premised on a fundamental ideological confusion. He argues, passionately, that “democracy” and freedom are vastly different things. In criticizing the popular equation of democracy and freedom, Agresto observes that “elections are a means, not an end” and that there “is no alchemy in either the word ‘elections’ or ‘democracy’” that transforms genocidal Islamists from bad to good (p. 99). Freedom in American, Agresto rightly points out, depends on the protection of rights. Freedom cannot be achieved, he argues, by unleashing (through elections) murderous Islamic mobs. In doing so, we have “handed Iraq over to exactly the worst elements” (p. 187).

The major value of the book lies in its exploration of how the war’s theoreticians failed to understand both the Iraqi people and the American political ideas we were supposed to be enacting. Much of the narrative, however, is colored by Agresto’s religious conservative views that man is moved by brutish impulses and that morality demands self-denial. These premises lead him to draw a broader conclusion that is unconvincing and inconsistent with the evidence he presents, and that seems grafted onto an otherwise trenchant analysis.

In keeping with his support of the campaign’s selfless ideal, Agresto places blame—unjustly—on the character of the American occupiers: He reproves the U.S. servicemen implementing Washington’s policies for caring more about themselves(!) than about the welfare of Iraqis. He concludes that Americans were not “ready to be the kind of liberating occupiers necessary to do the job right” (p. 182).

Taking this line of thinking further, he claims that the root of so much of the debacle can be traced to “a substratum of a baser human nature that Americans, and especially conservatives, seem forever eager to point out in theory, but forget about when confronted with in reality” (p. 182). The war’s neoconservative architects “need to listen to more old-fashioned conservatives who know something about the fallenness of our natures,” he admonishes (pp. 186–7). The ideal of serving Iraqis is noble, in other words, but it is beyond the ability of fallen, sinful creatures like us to be sufficiently selfless.

Yet the book fails to demonstrate this claim. The bulk of Agresto’s narrative characterizes the mission as implementing, not betraying, Washington’s ideal. Straining to support his claim, Agresto spends a chapter begrudging how little money the U.S. government (and other nations) gave away to pay for rebuilding universities. But given the Iraqi mindset that he describes, there is no reason to conclude that bestowing greater largesse on Iraqi universities would have averted the country’s fall into barbarism. And for the same reason, the book does not and cannot explain how greater U.S. sacrifices, whether political, military, or financial, could have brought about a peaceful new Iraqi regime.

In spite of the destructive results of America’s selfless endeavor in Iraq, Agresto cannot bring himself to question his deepest moral beliefs; instead, he insists that the problem must be our fallen nature. In this respect he resembles the Marxists who explain away the brutality of Communist regimes by condemning humanity as depraved.

But the book’s observant account of the early days of the Iraq campaign points toward an entirely different conclusion. It suggests that we should do what Agresto himself refuses to do: challenge the ideal animating Washington’s war policy. That ideal, the events of the book indicate, is antithetical to America’s self-defense (a point for which Yaron Brook and I have argued at length in “The ‘Forward Strategy’ for Failure,” TOS, Spring 2007). Mugged by Reality presents gripping, vividly detailed—and at times moving—eyewitness testimony that should prompt Americans to call into question the altruistic ideal shaping our foreign policy.

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