European Affairs

She does not. Sky acknowledges to the respected elder that the “death and destruction” flowing from the 2003 invasion. “We’ll have to live with that knowledge the rest of our lives,” she says.

When Sky expresses hope for a better future, he is unsparing toward the Arabic-speaking woman he now considers family. “How on earth can that be possible, with the people that America put in charge of this country?” You must write a book, he says, and tell the whole story.

Her memoir “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” attempts, with mixed success but heartfelt passion, to do that. It is one of most unusual books on the wide Iraq shelf. Unlike journalistic efforts, such as Tom Rick’s “Fiasco,” it isn’t an outsider’s objective account. Unlike the offerings of high ranking principals, such as “My Year in Iraq,” by Paul Bremer, the de facto American viceroy in the occupation’s early days, Sky’s book isn’t a personal apologia.

Rather it is an elegy for a mortally wounded society. It is also an indictment that damns America’s initial blunders, argues that it was finally beginning to get things right but then bugged out, leaving Iraq in extremis. Both flow from a unique perspective.

Sky is British, a professed anti-war idealist, a Middle East hand who studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. Before coming to Iraq for the first time two months after the invasion, she had spent time in Egypt, lived on a kibbutz, worked in a program to strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s civil service. She had vocally opposed both George H.W. Bush’s Gulf war and George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure.

The opportunity to help Iraqi civilians recover draws her there, ostensibly for three months, on a Foreign Office contract. Serendipity immediately sweeps Sky into the coalition occupation force among Americans rather than fellow Brits. She astonishes herself by swiftly acclimating to the alien G.I. culture. Partnering with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, she smilingly accepts her radio call letters: BB, for British Babe. 

Her first job is “governate coordinator,” or civilian administrator, of Kirkuk province. She learns fast. Soon Sky, rather than her “new best friend,” the brigade commander, leads the briefings for visitors from Baghdad.

She also experiences the first of many shattered illusions. Sky finds Bremer likable and dedicated, but realizes that the Coalition Provisional Authority is clueless about the gathering insurgency’s core. Further, his “de-Baathification” policy, designed to bar Saddam Hussein loyalists from senior positions, leaves schools without teachers and hospitals without doctors.  What she calls a “witch hunt” impedes her ability to reduce antagonism among Kirkuk’s contending sects and ethnic groups.

She applauds when activists agree to a year-end festivity. Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians join in circle dancing. “Round and round we went,” Sky writes, “laughing, singing along, all enjoying the party. This was how Kirkuk could be.” Days later a demonstration by Arabs and Turkmen against Kurdish primacy turns violent. Four die and 24 are injured.  Sky, having okayed the rally, is disconsolate.

She rises to become an adviser to Bremer in Baghdad. Years later she works closely Generals Ray Odierno and David Petraeus.  For a time Sky participates both in Odierno’s senior staff meetings at military headquarters and Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s at the U.S. embassy. As a trusted liaison with Shia, Sunnis and Kurds alike, Sky is often the go-to woman in delicate situations.

From her multiple vantage points, Sky forms strong views on the occupation’s progress. Pessimism is her primary sentiment during the sectarian civil war. After Odierno and Sky return to Iraq in January 2007 – he as the new second-in-command, she as his political adviser -- Sky tells him: “Sir, this is the greatest strategic disaster since the foundation of the United States.” He counters with a challenge: “What are we going to do about it? We’re not leaving it like this.”

What they do is capitalize on new developments. Thanks to Petraeus, the Americans begin practicing a form of counter-insurgency that puts small units in closer contact with communities and focuses on civilians’ security. Bush has approved “the surge,” a controversial decision that gives Odierno an additional 20,000 troops to bolster the new COIN approach.

Most important for the long-term prospect, Sunni tribes, starting in bloody Anbar province, are being persuaded to turn against al-Qaeda. U.S. paychecks grease the conversion. The ultimate goal is to integrate tens of thousands of Sunni fighters into Iraqi army and police units. “Reconciliation” becomes the byword.

Sky, with her gift for dealing with the contending sects, concentrates on bottle feeding the infant movement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own entourage is divided. Some of his Shiite advisers are happy to vet and enlist the Sunni converts. Others, responsive to Iran’s  courtship, warn that reconciliation is a mask for returning Baath to power. Maliki vacillates between these factions.

As 2007 unspools, trends improve. American and Iraqi casualties fall month by month. Shiite militias, long a scourge, go quiescent. In November, the British chief of staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, drops in. London had been pessimistic at the beginning of the year, planning to withdraw all its troops. Now Stirrup tells Odierno and Sky: “Congratulations on a great job. Astonishing difference over these six to eight months.” A British brigade will remain.

Odierno’s corps, however, is due for rotation at year’s end. He is in line to become Army deputy chief of staff. Sky, walking Baghdad streets that had recently been death traps, feels gratified.  “Against all odds,” she believes, “we had won.” If she ever returns, it will be to visit  Iraqi friends.

Wrong on both counts. A few months into private life, Sky hears from Petraeus, who has remained top commander. Reconciliation is in trouble, he says. When can you come back? 

As she agrees to short stint, the prospect changes dramatically. Petraeus learns that he must soon take over Central Command, with jurisdiction over Iraq and Afghanistan.  Odierno will become top dog in Iraq. They want her to come immediately, serve two months with Petraeus, then become Odierno’s POLAD indefinitely. “All I knew,” she recalls thinking as she flew back in May 2008, “was that my life in Iraq had purpose.”

Security is deteriorating, even in the Green Zone.  A rocket launched from a nearby conflict area almost nails Sky. Others are less lucky. The political situation is also worrisome. The two Iraqi officials heading the government’s reconciliation effort, with whom Sky had worked closely, are being investigated for treason. Though the spurious charge goes nowhere, the reconciliation program is paralyzed.

Sky now accompanies Odierno and Ryan to frequent meetings with Maliki. The prime minister, she finds, is increasingly dismissive of other Iraqi factions. Rumors of coup conspiracies make him antsy. He is also reluctant to conclude a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) with Washington. One is needed because United Nations authorization for coalition operations expires at year’s end.  Finally, after extracting concessions, Maliki agrees to a pact. The U.S. is to leave in 2011. Maliki boasts about having sealed a “withdrawal agreement.”

Barack Obama had campaigned on ending America’s involvement. Still, his victory elates Sky, who thinks the drawdown will be gradual and leave a residual military presence. “After the crazy era of the neo-conservatives,” she writes, “the U.S. was now led by man whose world view I thought I shared.”

Her enthusiasm soon evaporates.  Joe Biden comes to Baghdad to deliver the message that scarce resources will shift to Afghanistan. America’s Iraq effort must wind down quickly.

Events between spring 2009 and summer 2010 would dictate Iraq’s future for years to come. In Sky’s telling, Washington was so eager to exit Iraq fast that it acquiesced to Maliki’s retention of power. The U.S., she thinks, should somehow have helped to install a leader who would share power among the factions and lean toward Washington rather than Tehran.

Here Sky’s argument grows problematic, one side of a she-said-he-said clash. The “he” is Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador starting in April 2009.  His 2014 memoir, “Outpost,” covers the same critical period from a very different perspective.

Though a highly regarded diplomat, Hill, unlike Crocker, had no Middle East experience or expertise, no intention of staying long in Baghdad. He had put off retirement and a plum academic post after Obama’s more appropriate choice succumbed in a typical Washington imbroglio.

Hill and Sky dislike each other immediately. She contends in “The Unravelling” that Hill marginalized veteran Arabists, even restricting her embassy access. “It was frightening,” she writes, “how a person could so poison a place.”  Hill, in “Outpost,” avoids mentioning her by name. But in a disdainful tone he sniffs that Odierno’s staff “worried about the influence of his British political adviser over him, especially as she was known to harbor strong opinions.”

Animosity escalates after the Iraqi legislative election in March 2010. Maliki’s stock had hit bottom with the western diplomatic corps and military command. His domestic support was also anemic. Though his partisans manage to disqualify some opposition candidates, Maliki’s State of Law coalition runs two seats behind Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya grouping, 89 to 91. Washington finds Allawi, a secular Shiite with Sunni allies, simpatico. To Tehran, he’s poison.

In a parliamentary system, Allawi should have first shot at assembling a working majority of 163 seats. But Maliki balks. Charging fraud, he uses delaying tactics to stay in power. He also courts support among the many smaller parties, offering favors to recent adversaries. Allawi looks for help in Sunni capitals, gives interviews to American media, but does no partisan grunt work.

Odierno is outraged. “We’ve got to keep Iraqiya in the game,” he tells Sky. When the general appeals to the ambassador to intervene somehow, Hill shrugs him off. At this stage, no government perceived as a Washington creation would be viable. Tehran harbors no such scruples. It employs bribery and threats to head off any coalition containing secularist or pro-American elements. In private, Odierno fumes: “We stabilize Iraq, then hand it over to Iran as we rush to the exit.”

Months pass. Efforts to get Maliki and Allawi to negotiate a compromise founder. Sky says of this period: “Formation of the government was perceived as a battle between Iran and the U.S. Everyone realized this, except the Americans.”

But Hill tells the White House and State Department that he perceives no alternative to Maliki: “I concluded that we needed to focus on a better Maliki than he was in his first four-year term rather than engage in a quixotic effort to oust him.”

In August, Hill calls on the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, who is friendly to the U.S. and unhappy with Maliki’s treatment of Kurds. Their meeting, during which Biden – by no coincidence -- telephones from Washington, results in Barzani’s invitation to Maliki to show up the next day. They announce an entente, making it certain that Maliki will remain in office.

After that term begins in December, the “better Maliki” imagined by Hill fails to appear.  Baghdad tramples on Kurdish rights again, causing Barzani to rue the August deal. Maliki hounds important Sunnis out of the government, including a vice premier and a vice president.

Maliki insists on being his own defense minister, purging the army of officers not personally loyal to him. Later he declines to renew the SOFA with Washington, meaning there will not be even a small residual American military contingent after 2011. Shiite militias, loyal to Iran, threaten Sunni communities again. The table is set for the Islamic State’s feasting, starting in 2014, on Iraq’s dysfunctional military and faction-ridden society.

Does this blood soaked debacle mean that Sky wins her debate with Hill on the issue of Maliki’s reelection? Not quite. She fails to suggest a specific formula whereby American diplomacy could have confected a parliamentary majority for Allawi or any other Maliki rival. She skirts the fact that, at least for a time, Barzani accepted Hill’s assessment about plausible alternatives to Maliki.

Sky’s larger construct, that the Obama administration could and should have demonstrated more perseverance in 2009-10, expanding the progress visible in 2007-’08 into a durable success, is also open to challenge. For one thing, it overlooks domestic U.S. politics as Obama took office: an enervating brew of deep recession and war fatigue. For another, Iraqis were weary of the allied military presence.

But Sky is amply justified in criticizing Obama for his disingenuous praise of Maliki, as late as 2013, for having brought about a “functioning democracy in a country had previously been ruled by a vicious dictator.”

A still more fundamental issue is merely implied between the lines of “The Unraveling”: whether the U.S. in recent decades, regardless of who occupies the White House, has the capacity to deal with hideously complex challenges posed by the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. A variety of indicators, large and small, have been bearish.

At the micro level, the fact that Emma Sky rapidly rose to prominence demonstrates the paucity of American talent. She neglects to mention it, but Odierno, in a 2009 New York Times interview, was candid when asked why Sky was his POLAD: “Emma was able to give me a completely different perspective. It was from an Iraqi viewpoint. We didn’t have a lot of experience doing these things.” (Emphasis added.)  Similarly, when the administration, on short notice, had to come up with a second choice for ambassador, it could not find a qualified Arabist.

But Hill’s lack of Middle East experience wasn’t the reason one Republican senator obstructed Hill’s confirmation for two months while the Baghdad embassy lacked a chief. Rather the senator was disgruntled over something Hill had said about North Korea years before.  That was only a tiny symptom of Capitol Hill’s frequent lack of seriousness about national security and foreign policy.

Much more significant has been the inability, since 2011, to reach a comprehensive deal on fiscal policy. One result is the “sequester,” a strangulation process now reducing military strength dramatically despite new challenges posed by Russia and China – not to mention ISIS.  Some of the same congressional hawks urging sterner action in various crisis zones – which would require more money and more personnel – also oppose a bipartisan deal on spending and taxes.

Washington’s propensity to misread non-western societies and ignore likely consequences of its own crockery breaking has become chronic. American weapons and training of local forces pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan, whereupon America’s sudden amnesia about the country’s fragility helped lead to Taliban rule.  Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait totally surprised Washington. Nailing Gaddafi was relatively easy; draining the swamp Libya became after Gaddafi feel seems impossible.

The blind eye and tin ear displayed by the Bush administration in 2003 was particularly egregious. It seemed that no one had understood events since the British, after World War I, committed the original sin. London whimsically stitched three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire into Iraq. The Colonial Office then imported in a Sunni dignitary from Arabia, crowned him Faisal I, and used military force to enable his reign over a majority-Shiite population and a restive Kurdish enclave.

Ensuing decades featured regicide, coups, rebellions, ethnic cleansing and sectarian animosity contained only by military dictatorship. Hence the neo-conservative idea that the U.S. could, at relatively low cost in just a few years, create a peaceful Mesopotamian democracy where none had existed since antiquity was a bigger fantasy than the one about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Emma Sky’s conviction that more patience and political will from Washington would have made a significant difference is impossible to disprove, but it seems to contain some wishful thinking. Still, the lament with which she ends her memoir, after subsequent visits to Iraq, is a haunting challenge: “There was nothing to be seen from all the blood and treasure we had invested. Iran was resurgent, a proxy war was raging in the region….No U.S. official had been held accountable for the decision to invade Iraq; nor for what happened after the overthrow of the regime; nor for the way in which the U.S. departed. And few showed any signs of remorse.”

Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.

"The Unraveling:  High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq "
By Emma Sky
Illustrated. 383 pp. PublicAffairs. $28.99.