/ Published August 08, 2015
This work is a concise, fast-paced, political history of the 2003–2011 Iraq War. It is aimed at the strategic level of war focusing on the Executive Branch and is written by William Nester, professor of government and politics at St. Johnâ€™s University in New York City.
The key question the author poses emerges quickly: “But did destroying Saddam and his regime, and imposing a democratic system on its ruins, justify the conquest’s methods?” He cobbles together a narrative that keeps the reader’s interest—only after tuning out the highly charged language and reading past his rage and obvious political slant. This makes the book highly biased, and the author reveals this bias through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle word choices. Nester clearly believes the ends did not justify the means. He uses mostly newspaper articles as his primary sources and does a marginal job of supporting his arguments through primarily secondary sources.
One of the author’s themes and strongest arguments is that from a pure economic and financial perspective, the “triple containment” policy before the invasion was cheaper than the war. Unfortunately, when the author makes the claim that “this containment policy only cost American taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year,” he lists no reference. He does a better job of citing the higher costs of the invasion and occupation.
Another of Nester’s theses is well articulated and well documented. “In September 2002 the Bush administration launched a massive concerted effort to convince the public that Iraq was behind September 11 and posed an imminent threat to attack the [U.S.] with WMDs.” The author uses quotes from Pres. George W. Bush, Vice Pres. Richard Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to support his topic sentence all backed up by full citations in the endnotes. Yet, barely a page later, the author writes of deliberations at Camp David—which he could not possibly have had first-hand knowledge—claiming that President Bush was “wishy-washy” on a Colin Powell proposal, without citing a single source.
Other errors occur in the discussion of Iraqi surface-to-surface (SS) missiles. After detailing reports of hundreds of Iraqi SS-23 missiles, thousands of gallons of biological agents, and tons of chemical agents once known to be in Iraq’s possession, the author speculates about how effective those weapons would have been if used. His sources are New York Times articles. “By detonating on impact, these bombs and missiles most likely would have incinerated most and perhaps all of their deadly agents.” It was disappointing to see this professor speculate, caveat, and poorly cite this assertion.
One of his quotes from Brent Scowcroft in a 2002 Wall Street Journal article is quite chilling given what we have seen in the Middle East recently. Brent Scowcroft warned that by invading Iraq, “there would be ‘an explosion of outrage against us’ that ‘could well destabilize Arab regimes’ and ‘could even swell the ranks of the terrorists.’ ” How prophetic those words seem today.
Military veterans of the 2003 invasion are rewarded with rare praise. “Even if the conservative crusade in Iraq was unjust by any practical, legal, or moral measure, America’s military certainly fought it justly . . . militarily the war was a dazzling success.”
In one of the better chapters, “Bring ‘Em On!,” the author does a solid job in recounting the sectarian violence of Sunni against Shia, of the issue of Moktada al-Sadr’s Makdi Army and Sadr City and other aspects of the environment within which our counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy operated. Those intending to fight our nation’s next COIN will want to read chapter 17, which begins by claiming that “the Bush administration’s policies provided a textbook example of how not to fight rebels.” Once again hinting at the lack of a coherent strategy for information operations at a military level and for strategic communications at the whole-of-government level, the author does a good job of summarizing the missteps with the handover and trial of Saddam Hussein, “what could have been a great propaganda coup for the [U.S.] and the international community instead played into the hands of America’s worst enemies.” He has recreated polling data that may be useful for future research on the Iraq War and winning (or not) Iraqi “hearts and minds” through our COIN strategy.
A strategic thought from the “Empowering Iran” chapter follows: “The Iranians saw the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as godsends by eliminating Iran’s enemies. Iranian revolutionaries are filling the subsequent political vacuums in both countries.” This Nester assertion is backed up by recent current events in which Iran has taken a leadership role in Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Most Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) readers are better served by not reading this book as there are more balanced, less emotional, and better cited works available on the Iraq War. However, of interest to us all is the shadow government the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency formed with hundreds of professional Iraqi exiles in the “Future of Iraq Project.” If SSQ readers who are military planners can obtain this 2,000-page plan, it could be useful in future Phase 5/Stability Operations deliberative planning.
Wayne L. Shaw III, Lt Col, USAF, retired
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."