Robert K. Brigham. The United States and Iraq Since 1990: A Brief History with Documents. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. xxi + 301 pp. $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4051-9899-8.
Reviewed by Katelyn Tietzen (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Where does one begin to explain America’s historical involvement in the Middle East? What about just in Iraq How does one concisely, and sufficiently, narrate the First Gulf War, 1990-91, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), especially given the complicated political implications? In attempting to deal with these questions, Robert K. Brigham’s The United States and Iraq Since 1990: A Brief History with Documents is an ambitious work. Brigham outlines his methodology upfront by stating that the “format was developed specifically with the classroom in mind.” He aims to “[provide] students, scholars, and general readers with a concise overview of America’s wars for Iraq” (p. xiv). Each chapter provides a narrative, followed by between five to eight documents of a variety of types, including speeches, policy papers, national directives, United Nations resolutions, congressional testimony, memorandums, government and military publications, and presidential addresses. Every document is followed by a list of potential questions to consider for further discussion. Needless to say, this book is very classroom-friendly.
The first eight pages of chapter 1 (“The First Gulf, 1990-1991”) cover everything from the Eisenhower Doctrine to the rise of the Ba’thist Party, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War. While the limited number of these pages may cause concern for those specializing in the Middle East, Brigham does provide enough historical background to permit a suitable discussion of Iraq—he keeps an appropriate temporal framework without sacrificing the broader context solely for the contemporary. The narrative does not ignore nor does it confront certain controversies head on. Why was the Republican Guard permitted to escape relatively intact? Why did the Bush administration seemingly ignore the flight of the Shi’a during the 1991 uprisings? Brigham presents these controversies for themselves, leaving them open to interpretation. Some of Brigham’s issues, such as Saddam Hussein’s return to such a vocal anti-Israeli stance in early 1990, have been addressed by scholars, but the minor holes in the narrative do not discredit the work.
Chapter 2 (“Clinton and Containment, 1992-2001”) traces the fallout from the First Gulf War, and the ever polarizing debate over the handling of Saddam Hussein. Brigham weaves through the “diplomatic dance” (p. 43) between the United Nations, United States, and Iraq over Kuwaiti reparations, no-fly zones, attacks on the Kurds and Shi’a, the Oil for Food program, and most importantly, Iraq’s weapon programs. Brigham does well to avoid drawing conclusions on whether Iraq possessed a nuclear weapon program—he does, however, present all sides of the argument and evidence, both for and against, concrete and skeptical. He argues that Saddam’s brazen intransigence regarding United Nations weapon inspections triggered two important consequences: it fractured the very coalition used to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, and it drove two opposite ideologies to simultaneously call for President Bill Clinton to push for further action in Iraq. By 1998, the Clinton administration itself realized containment of Iraq via UN and international diplomacy was not working alone, and the president ordered military operations against Saddam’s “warmaking capabilities” (p. 52). These operations, codenamed Desert Fox, however, did not stop the neoconservative camp from criticizing what they perceived as Clinton’s perceived limited intervention; they only increased their calls for regime change. On the other hand, liberal internationalists, such as Secretary of State Madeline Albright, hoped President Clinton would intervene on humanitarian grounds. Al-Qaeda’s increasing terrorist capabilities and attacks in the 1990s (World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in 1996, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole attack in 2000) also contributed to the debate—was President Clinton doing enough? The legacy of Clinton’s containment is still left to be decided.
Chapter 2 sets the stage for chapters 3-6, which cover the beginnings of OIF through President Barack Obama’s administration. President George W. Bush’s election and the September 11, 2001, attacks saw US foreign policy shift towards the neoconservative camp. Chapter 3 (“The Invasion of Iraq, 2003”) traces the 9/11 attacks, the continued rise of neoconservatives, and the build-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Brigham explores the roles played by President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell in shaping and pushing the regime change policy, both in public and private spheres. The two most important questions were: Did Saddam Hussein support the 9/11 attacks, and does he have weapons of mass destruction? Brigham is indeed skeptical of the “evidence” provided and he paints a disturbing picture of political wrangling undertaken by the Bush administration to convince the American public, legal scholars, Congress, and the international community of its justifications to invade Iraq. Brigham argues that “it now seems clear that the Bush team simply went through the motions at the United Nations, believing that it already had the legal and ethical right to invade Iraq (p. 111). Brigham does well in navigating the debates between military and political officials over troop strength, timeline predictions, and post-invasion state building, which further complicated, and arguably doomed, the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq. Even though President Bush told the Iraqi people, “You’re free! And freedom is beautiful!” (p. 116) as the Ba’thist regime crumbled in early April 2003, the war was far from over.
In chapter 4 (“The Deadliest Fighting, 2003-2006”), chapter 5 (“The Surge, 2006-2008”), and chapter 6 (“Obama’s War, 2009-2011”), Brigham continues to blend political, military, and public contexts. These chapters are not simple operational histories, but rather, they detail the growing divide between expectation and reality for American political and military officials, in both the Bush and Obama administrations. The American government, military, and public were not prepared for the “liberation of Iraq” to shift to a civil war and insurgency. Brigham concisely narrates the rise of Shi’a and Sunni militias, the difficulties with Iraqi elections, the establishment of an Iraqi government, the increasing toll the war took on Iraqi civilians, the changes in American military tactics (such as a greater emphasis on counterinsurgency, and the surge by 2006), and the dissent and decline of support for the war among the American public and government. Brigham’s choice of documents in these sections is useful, and they illustrate the discontinuity between policy and performance—that decisions made at the top did not necessarily unfold as planned on the ground. Brigham also suggests that both the Bush and Obama administrations were guilty of inflexibility and stubbornness in their policy decisions at critical times. They wanted exit strategies that preserved America’s “victory” and that justified the cost, both in lives lost and dollars spent. Both wanted the Iraqis to take more control and responsibility over security and governance as well. However, sectarian violence, the weakness and corruption of the Iraqi government and military, and a divided American public continued to plague the desires and hopes for both administrations. The consequences of these policies were, of course, felt more intensely by the Iraqi people.
The epilogue examines the paradoxical nature of American policy towards Iraq between 2010 and 2011: the ever-increasing security role Hilary Clinton’s State Department played coincided with the withdrawal of American troops. As Brigham points out, this dual policy left many Iraqis, and even fellow Americans, wondering what exactly was happening. Future historians will need to flesh out the ramifications of this policy. Brigham concludes with Americans, including President Obama, General Lloyd Austin III, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta praising Americans troops and celebrating the end of war. Even six years after the withdrawal, as we have seen in 2017, the “war” may be over, but the struggle for Iraq certainly is not. Perhaps Brigham is at his most critical when he states that “what is truly remarkable about the wars for Iraq is the apparent failure to alter Iraqi outlook and policies never stopped U.S. policymakers from believing that they could transform Iraq. U.S. officials continued to overstate American potential influence in Iraq, even after the U.S. troop withdrawal. U.S. policymakers have been slow to realize that there are incredible limits on American power” (p. 282).
Minor criticisms of the book include Brigham’s unequal amount of discussion spent on the 2003 war as compared to the First Gulf War, and the limited use of Iraqi sources, especially given the recent work scholars have done on Saddam’s tapes and Ba’thist documents. However, the bibliography is well balanced. Readers should be aware that this work, especially the supporting documents, views the wars in Iraq almost entirely from a top-down perspective, with little heard from Iraqis or American soldiers on the ground. Although American-centric, the book does well to balance foreign and domestic issues, policies, and discussions. Overall, Brigham achieves his most important purpose in that he states: “I wrote this book because I perceived that there was a growing gap between the official narrative of success in Iraq and what the documents revealed” (pp. xiv). This is extremely relevant to the developing public narrative and memory of these conflixsts, and I suspect Brigham may be responding to the issues with the Center of Military History (which still has not published the official history of the Vietnam War in its entirety yet) and the US Army’s On Point: The Journal of Army History volumes on OIF. These publications are fraught with problems, most notably the fact that the first volume, published in July 2004, indicated that the war ended with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003!
Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all seemingly oversaw changes in American involvement in Iraq—from containment to intervention to withdrawal. While these presidents each claimed to bring new thinking, new policy, and new direction to American foreign policy, in reality, they continued much of what the previous administration started. This, if anything, I would argue, is the crux of the book: there are no simple demarcation points to explain America’s involvement in Iraq. There never will be. Brigham’s book is an excellent teaching resource, and while it does not provide every necessary document or evidence to complete the story of Iraq, this is still a fantastic undergraduate course primer, one which provides ample jumping-off points for further discussion and research. The United States and Iraq Since 1990: A Brief History with Documents will neither settle all questions surrounding Iraq nor satisfy specialists. It does, however, offer an important starting point for addressing American involvement in Iraq.
. For a look into the Ba’thist regime, see Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
. See Kevin Woods, David Palkki, and Mark Stout, eds., The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Ofra Benigo, Saddam Speaks on the Gulf Crisis: A Collection of Documents (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992).
. On the Iran-Iraq War, see Kevin Woods and Williamson Murray, The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015). On the 2003 war, see Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor, Endgame: the Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Vintage, 2012). For the birth and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), see William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: Picador, 2015).
. COL Gregory Fontenot, US Army, Retired, LTC E. J. Degen, US Army, LTC David Tohn, US Army, with the Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group, “The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” On Point: The Journal of Army History 1 (July 2004), http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/OnPointI.pdf, accessed May 7, 2017.
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