Iraq: The War of the Imagination

Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.
—George F. Kennan,September 26, 2002

I ask you, sir, what is the American army doing inside Iraq?… Saddam’s story has been finished for close to three years.
—President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, August 13, 2006-

In the ruined city of Fallujah, its pale tan buildings pulverized by Marine artillery in the two great assaults of this long war (the aborted attack of March 2004 and then the bloody, triumphant al-Fajr (The Dawn) campaign of the following November), behind the lines of giant sandbags and concrete T-walls and barbed wire that surrounded the tiny beleaguered American outpost there, I sat in my body armor and Kevlar helmet and thought of George F. Kennan. Not the grand old man of American diplomacy, the ninety-eight-year-old Father of Containment who, listening to the war drums beat from a Washington nursing home in the fall of 2002, had uttered the prophetic words above. I was thinking of an earlier Kennan, the brilliant and ambitious young diplomat who during the late 1920s and 1930s had gazed out on the crumbling European order from Tallinn and Berlin and Prague and read the signs of the coming world conflict.

For there in the bunkered Civil-Military Operations Center (known as the C-Moc) in downtown Fallujah, where a few score Marines and a handful of civilians subsisted in a broken-down bunkered building without running water or fresh food, I met young Kennan’s reincarnation in the person of a junior State Department official: a bright, aggressive young man who spent his twenty-hour days rumbling down the ruined streets in body armor and helmet with his reluctant Marine escorts, meeting with local Iraqi officials, and writing tart cables back to Baghdad or Washington telling his bosses the truth of what was happening on the ground, however reluctant they might be to hear it. This young diplomat was resourceful and brilliant and indefatigable, and as I watched him joking and arguing with the local sheikhs and politicos and technocrats—who were meeting, as they were forced to do, in the American bunker—I thought of the indomitable young Kennan of the interwar years, and of how, if the American effort in Iraq could ever be made to “work,” only undaunted and farseeing young men like this one, his spiritual successor, could make it happen.

This was October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution, and I had come to Fallujah, the heart of rebellious Anbar province, to see whether the Sunnis could gather the political strength to vote it down. In a provision originally insisted on by the Kurds, a provision that typified an American-designed political process that had been intended to unify the country but that instead had helped pull it inexorably apart, the proposed constitution could be …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.