In a world where the tragedy that is Iraq is usually discussed only in media sound bites and political slogans, it is especially gratifying to see an adult, intelligent, and insightful account of life inside Iraq by someone who lived there for nine months in the early days of the occupation in 2003 and 2004, and who saw the fundamental mistakes that would later plague the attempt to create a viable Iraqi government.
John Agresto, a career American academic and former college president who volunteered to go help create a better higher education system in Iraq, learned a lot about Iraqi society in general and about American attempts to create a better society there.
His recently published book is titled "Mugged by Reality" and is subtitled: "The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions."
What is refreshingly different about this book is that it does not take the Bush administration line, the Congressional Democrats’ line or anybody else’s line.
Agresto is not out to prove some theory or push some pet scheme but to convey what he saw with his own eyes and discerned from his own experiences with both Iraqis and Americans in Iraq.
He makes no claim to infallibility but in fact admits to being forced to change his mind by what he saw.
Initially a supporter of the invasion, he now says that he would not have been a supporter if he had known beforehand how the occupation would be mishandled and the results that followed. But he also recognizes that we cannot unring the bell and simply leave, for that would lead to even worse consequences, not only in Iraq but elsewhere, not only to others but to ourselves.
The worst mistake, in Agresto’s view, was the failure to establish law and order in the wake of the military victory, before undertaking the grandiose project of attempting to create democracy in Iraq. From this fundamental mistake, many of the other tragedies followed.
In the absence of law and order, there was widespread violence, looting, rape — in short, the war of each against all that Hobbes warned about, centuries ago.
As for democracy, Agresto understands that the right to vote is no guarantee of freedom, toleration or respect for the rights of others. Without those prerequisites, democracy can mean tyranny at home and terrorism abroad.
Apparently the American civilian authorities in Iraq did not understand this or else they let that understanding be overridden by political considerations. By setting up a government based on warring factions, they made cooperation in the national interest a very unlikely prospect.
Today, when more and more Iraqis are rejecting the outside terrorists whom the media keep calling "insurgents," and when our military is restoring more order than Iraq has seen in a while, the most intractable problem is the very government we set up.
General David Petraeus is mentioned only a couple of times, and briefly, in "Mugged by Reality." But those brief mentions seem to be revealing.
Right after the success of military operations in Iraq, General Petraeus’ 101st Airborne had control of the city of Mosul. According to Agresto, "he ran it in radically different ways than the rest of Iraq was run" — and Mosul was "calm" in contrast to other parts of Iraq.
Then, after control of Mosul was passed on to others, it "began to rival the worst sections of Baghdad for attacks on Coalition forces and violence against Iraqis."
One of the ways in which Petraeus ran Mosul differently from the way things were done in the rest of Iraq, according to Agresto, was not to get rid of existing public officials wholesale, despite their being members of the former ruling Baath Party.
Somebody has to run the basic institutions that make civilized life possible — and you can’t just get rid of those who know how to run those institutions before you have someone qualified to replace them. Apparently General Petraeus was pragmatic enough to understand that.
We may, belatedly, have found a man and an approach that work.