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Iraq, veteran, Iraqi

The US Continues to Misunderstand Iraq and Iraqis

A human intelligence collector recalls his deployment to Iraq.

Words: Paul J. McKinney
Pictures: Levi Meir Clancy

Twenty years ago this month, the majority of Americans cheered as the US-led invasion of Iraq was live-streamed into our living rooms. As a sophomore in high school, I too was glued to the television set, fixated as much by the lofty rhetoric about defending human rights as by the moral certitude that the United States must be on the right side of history, bolstered by a conviction that we would be treated as liberators and welcomed with “sweets and flowers.”

Despite the healthy skepticism articulated by much of the world, including several key US allies, the Republican and Democratic parties were united in moving forward with this war of choice. Trusted journalists supported the George W. Bush administration’s dubious claims that Iraq actively sought weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Performative acts of patriotism were ubiquitous throughout American popular culture. And so, it is in this “with-us-or-against-us” discourse that Hellfire missiles were launched in our name, raining down on Baghdad’s ominously dark skyline, the explosive burning orange “mist” reflected on the Tigris as it snaked along the city.

We quickly applauded ourselves for conducting “one of the swiftest and most humane military campaigns in history,” despite the more than 7,000 reported civilian deaths. When Thomas Friedman crassly argued on PBS in May 2003 that this was exactly what the Arab world “needed to see, American boys and girls going house to house — from Basra to Baghdad — and basically saying… ‘you don’t think we care about our open society?’…Well, suck on this,” he was capturing the sentiments of broad swaths of the American public.

What happened next is familiar to most, but to summarize the events that dominated headlines: American boys and girls soon found themselves greeted — not with sweets and flowers, as had been promised — but with bullets and bombings. No WMDs were discovered, discrediting the Bush administration’s pretext for war. No links were established between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, as surmised by the administration to the UN in its justification for pre-emptive war.

Several of the members appointed to the Iraqi Governing Council, which took office in July 2003 under the purview of the US-led Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA), lacked credibility and were viewed with deep suspicion by Iraqis who, as it turned out, aptly foretold that their new rulers would impose agendas that did not reflect their interests.

The first two of the CPA’s 100 Orders, which purged the state of Ba’ath Party members and disbanded the military and security services, left an estimated half a million Iraqis unemployed overnight. The implementation of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and the harrowing prisoner abuse scandals that emerged, treated as routine aspects of working “on the dark side,” were met with a backlash of violence directed against US troops. The use of “money as a weapons system,” where billions of dollars was doled out like Monopoly money with almost zero accountability, fueled conflict and laid the foundation for Iraq’s endemic corruption.

Each of these stories, and the lived experiences behind them, deserves to be told and retold for the incalculable suffering they unleashed — and the American public needs to listen. But as we commemorate the anniversary, it’s also important to reflect on the lessons we choose to draw from them. Excellent recent accounts of the personal and power dynamics in Washington provide fresh (and fascinating) insights into the decision-making process to go to war, providing a case study of how the foreign policy “blob” operates.

Other “lessons learned” published by governmental watchdogs do well in identifying weaknesses and outright failures, often highlighting how poor planning, organizational and administrative dysfunction, an insufficient number of personnel, agency turf wars, and a lack of oversight hampered reconstruction efforts. Excellent works of fiction allow readers to more intimately connect these failures to those most affected by them. And then, of course, are the predictable explanations of post-2003 Iraq’s failures that, far from advancing knowledge, instead recycle tropes of Iraq as this epically divided land, the subtext being that democratic and pluralistic movements are somehow “unnatural” to the Arab World, situated on the fault lines with the West in this so-called “clash of civilizations.”

But regardless of your politics, there can be no denying that the costs and consequences of the Iraq war were tragic. For Iraqis and several thousand American families, the war is not something in the distant past but rather an enduring feature of the present. Beyond recounting in greater detail some of the policy prescriptions above that contributed to those tragic consequences, however, we also have an obligation to seek a deeper explanation for how they manifested. To be sure, some of those decisions were a direct result of American hubris. But many of the failures during the initial years can be located within the dominant ideology of the time, neoliberalism, and through the orientalist lens by which the US occupation would soon view Iraq: as an artificial state characterized by primordial hatreds.


While it’s true that neo-conservative ideology provided the rationale for the shock-and-awe campaign, it’s neoliberalism that shaped the assumptions and guided policy prescriptions for what immediately came next, in what Toby Dodge termed “kinetic liberalism.” Simultaneously, the perceived otherness of Iraq worked in insidious ways to undermine efforts to build a democratic and inclusive post-2003 order. In this otherness, Iraq was viewed as being intrinsically “fragmented,” with presumed deep cleavages along religious and ethnic identities. While the United States did not import sectarian-based conflict to Iraq, the occupation worked on many levels to unintentionally elevate the political and social relevance of ethno-sectarian identity, enshrined it as premium currency into Iraq’s political economy, and increasingly reified it into public consciousness.

While the United States did not import sectarian-based conflict to Iraq, the occupation worked on many levels to unintentionally elevate the political and social relevance of ethno-sectarian identity, enshrined it as premium currency into Iraq’s political economy, and increasingly reified it into public consciousness.

In the decade following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the neoconservative movement began advocating for a more muscular military posture in the world. Departing from decades of containment policy, neoconservativism downplayed the importance of coalitions and emphasized the right to intervene anywhere national security interests were at stake, reserving the right to act unilaterally if needed. By 1998, several prominent neoconservative intellectuals and soon-to-be senior Bush administration appointees called on then-President Bill Clinton to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein from power. Later that year, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, codifying the United States’ official policy of regime change.

It is by now well-documented that hours after the United States was attacked on 9/11, these same appointees were narrowly focused on linking al-Qaida to Saddam and all too ready to cherry-pick data from raw, unverified human intelligence to support their conclusion. By March 2003, neoconservatives had successfully driven the case for pre-emptive war and, within six weeks of launching the shock-and-awe military campaign, declared “Mission Accomplished.”

One critique of neoconservatism is that it does not have much to say about what happens post-invasion. Especially in times of crisis, which the months following the shock-and-awe campaign certainly were, people tend to fall back on the dominant ideologies of their times. Since the late 1970s, neoliberalism has been the dominant ideology in the United States and much of the Global North, especially evident in its policy prescriptions toward the Global South, in what eventually became known as the Washington Consensus. Operating within this ideological framework, it was taken for granted that Iraqis would be quick to embrace the apparently self-evident logic behind privatization and deregulation.

Just as important as providing physical security, the CPA viewed the enactment of market-oriented reforms as the surest path to democracy, security, and prosperity. According to this logic, once the remnants of the regime were ousted, sanctions lifted, and market-oriented reforms enacted, foreign direct investment would be bountiful, and its fruits would trickle down and fundamentally transform the economy. Revenues from Iraq’s natural resource wealth would generate the national funds needed for its reconstruction, elections could be held, and a constitution drafted. The order of events here matters: Iraq’s neighbors and, indeed, the entire Arab World would see a thriving democratic country because it was “open for business.” The entire region — inspired by the Iraq model — may even follow suit. Sounds easy enough, right?

Iraq’s natural resource wealth, coupled with the Ba’ath Party’s success in the nationalization of oil in 1972, allowed the state to invest significantly in human capital and infrastructure projects, and its development leaped forward in just one generation. During that time, Iraq’s universities were among the best in the region, illiteracy was nearly eradicated, standards of living were relatively high, and cultural production was booming. By the time of the 2003 invasion, however, Iraq had suffered through nearly 23 consecutive years of war — first during a decade of brutal trench warfare against Iran, followed by the First Gulf War, and then through a comprehensive sanctions regime. But austerity measures did not mean the state retreated from public life; instead, it found new and innovative ways to permeate all layers of society, and up until the 2003 invasion, Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was still very much in control.

Although years of war and draconian sanctions had taken a noticeable toll on the state’s ability to invest in its development, Iraqis nonetheless harbored expectations about the prominent role the social state plays in their lives, many of which were at odds with neoliberalism. To enact its market-oriented reforms with minimal resistance, the CPA’s first two orders gutted the large state apparatus.

Within a year of assuming control over Iraq’s affairs, the CPA had issued a remarkably high number of orders focused on the economy. Some of the most notable orders included, for example, selling about 200 state-run enterprises, eliminating the right to unionize in most sectors, outlawing labor strikes, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control, mandating a regressive flat tax on income, lowering the corporate rate to a flat 15%, eliminating taxes on profits repatriated to foreign-owned businesses, and even an order that prohibited Iraqi farmers from re-using “protected” varieties of genetically modified seeds. During this time, the security situation was rapidly deteriorating, unemployment soared to nearly 60%, and cash-for-work programs were inadequately funded. Meanwhile, the CPA vigorously pursued the opening of the Iraq Stock Exchange.

It’s worth stating here that the CPA recognized the US presence was severely understaffed. This, then, begs the question: when operating with such limited bandwidth, why did the CPA focus so heavily on market reforms while the country was burning? The explanation can partly be found in neoliberalism’s deep-seated assumptions that competition is the defining characteristic of human relations and that human beings always behave as rational economic actors. Markets, therefore, are seen as the most efficient way to organize a society and, by extension, to optimize individual freedom. It follows then that the CPA placed an emphasis on privatization and deregulation initiatives, even as the country was spiraling downward. Only when it became abundantly clear by 2006 — after Iraq had fully descended into civil war — that transitioning to democracy would require much more than the empty promises offered by neoliberalism, did those neoliberal policies finally take a backseat.


Immediately following the shock-and-awe campaign, the CPA began assigning primary political significance to confessional and communal identities. Instead of being a citizen who also happened to possess an overlapping religious and ethnic identity, Iraqis were made to fit into one of three categories: either as an oppressive Sunni or a victimized Shi’ah or member of a minority religious/ethnic group. This simplistic reduction obscured the complex ways in which the regime operated and how it meted out violence which, to be clear, was not sectarian in nature but instead driven by the political logic of its own survival. However, this view was not shared by Iraqi opposition leaders in exile, who portrayed the regime’s actions during the 1990s in overtly sectarian terms.

The CPA had evidently adopted the view that Iraq suffered from deep religious and ethnic cleavages. As a result, the CPA decided the Iraqi Governing Council needed to reflect “Iraqi society’s balance,” which its leadership described as the code-switching “formula” to appoint members based on Iraq’s assumed demography. This explicit quota-sharing arrangement, where political power in post-Saddam Iraq would be parceled out according to ethnoreligious identities, set a dangerous precedent.

For their part, during this time, the US military did not share the CPA’s view that Iraq was epically divided. In 2002, the US Department of Defense published the “Iraq Transitional Handbook: A Field Ready Reference” and distributed them to deploying US servicemembers as an accessible overview of Iraqi history, politics, and culture. Though imperfect, the handbook provides space for a more nuanced understanding of Iraqi society, stating that the “geographic shorthand used to describe Iraq — Shi’a south, Sunni center — masks more complex patterns of social and cultural identity.” The handbook goes on to say that Iraqis could “simultaneously profess” multiple “overlapping” identify markers.

As a deploying soldier, you could take away from this handbook that a citizen could simultaneously profess a strong conviction in their religious faith, display acts of patriotism, be committed to a pluralistic country, work as, say, an accountant by day and frequent art shows by night. More simply stated, human beings everywhere are complicated, identities are fluid, and simplistic reductions distort reality.


By the time I deployed to Iraq, counterinsurgency or COIN had long emerged as the guiding doctrine, and as part of pre-deployment preparations, I attended more than a few cultural awareness trainings. These trainings often focused on what soldiers ought not to do: display the soles of their boots while sitting with Iraqis; ask an Iraqi for their opinion (Iraqis were, according to the module, considered too “eager to agree,” and soldiers, therefore, were advised not to trust that an Iraqi’s expressed opinions were actually their own); back away from an Iraqi man while having a conversation with him (the module considered it “not gay” for another Iraqi man to touch another man’s leg or hold his hand and, prior to the repeal of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, cultural awareness trainings tolerated these affectionate displays for the sake of mission success).

The primordial hatreds argument had, in just a few years, become the most salient explanation for why democracy was failing to take root in post-2003 Iraq. For example, it was common for training modules to cite the Siege of Baghdad in 1258, highlighting the Mongol Empire’s efforts to “integrate” and “assimilate” the “rival tribes” of Iraq into “one people.” Soldiers were taught that Iraqis had been fighting among each other for centuries and, under the auspices of foreign powers, could once again learn to co-exist today as they did under the Mongols.

In but the most obvious example of simplistic reductions, by 2005, the military began to distribute “smart cards,” a laminated cheat sheet of sorts, that folded neatly into a soldier’s cargo pocket. The so-called smart cards provided a few Arabic phrases, but their chief purpose was to distill Iraq’s history, culture, and beliefs down to a few bullet points. In this quick reference guide, soldiers learned that Arabs and Kurds were openly hostile to each other; Sunni and Shi’a Muslims had been at war for over a millennium; Christians were mistrustful of Muslims; Arabs hostile to Christians; and Turkomans fearful of Kurds and treated as culturally inferior by Arabs. The only common value Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups shared, evidently, was a shared belief in the importance of family.

I can see now that they are seeking from me some piece of knowledge to make this awful situation intelligible, and I owe it to them, not least because all I’ve done is take since I arrived. But I have no good answers, so we sit in the room together a little while longer, nodding in silence, trying to make sense of how we arrived there.

Unsurprisingly, soldiers took away from these trainings that Iraq was an epically divided country and its culture so strange that it required special explanations. That it was cobbled together on the back of a cocktail napkin by European powers following the First World War, rendering its borders “artificial.” The 2005 map provided in the smart card had done a 180, clearly demarking “Sunnistan,” “Shiahstan,” and “Kurdistan” regions, the tripartite Iraq, as if this was the “real” Iraq.

And so the Iraq presented to soldiers was not so much even a country, really, but rather a patchwork of warring factions, much like it had been 850 years ago. During and in the years following the 2006-2007 civil war, the surest way to know where someone’s perceived loyalties stood — militarily, politically, economically, and socially — was to quickly ascertain their religious and ethnic identity. As soldiers, we were instructed to elicit this information during each interaction; Iraqis could no longer profess to be many things. Now, they were either a Sunni or Shi’a, an Arab or Kurd, a Christian or Muslim, a friend or foe.

As uncomfortable as it is to interject my own experiences while in uniform here, they illustrate not only the corrosiveness of this otherness lens but the absurdity of it. At the same time, the knowledge I gained was not neutral, and it came at a steep price to others. Recognizing the trade-offs, I still feel obliged to share.

As a human intelligence collector, my job involved spending several hours each day speaking one-on-one with Iraqis, most of whom were accused of belonging to violent extremist organizations (VEOs), to better understand how those organizations functioned. More than a decade later, many of those conversations remain eternally etched into my memory. The details about how specific VEOs functioned have since receded, but the more interesting details about how communities functioned, how relations were managed, what people ate and valued and read and listened to, and the activities they did in their spare time — those have long endured.

While in Iraq, I find myself sitting one-on-one with young people, some in their early 20s like I was then, and the conversation comes easily. Sometimes, the younger guys make half-baked arguments, loosely linking their actions to the Iraqi Revolution of 1920 during the British Mandate. The argument doesn’t sound quite fleshed out, but they are finding their voice and feel they are on to something — the certainty of youth — and maybe they are, and anyway, you have to admire the attempt. Other times, I’m speaking with middle-aged professors and doctors and engineers, but also with day laborers and farmers and former soldiers. Some likely committed acts of violence, and others likely not. It’s starting to come into focus now that Iraq is not the intrinsically fragmented country that we’ve been told.

Older men describe the cosmopolitan Iraqi cities of their youths before the decades of wars that beset them but also recount astonishingly generous acts of mutual aid during the not-so-pleasant days, of which there were plenty during the sanctions era. Neighbors looked after each other. A tinge of nostalgia rings out for a not-too-distant time when their neighborhoods were mixed, when crossing the al-Jadriyah Bridge from Rusafa to Karkh didn’t mean crossing into a religiously and ethnically homogenized area, when you did not have to stop at multiple checkpoints during the ten-block drive home, when the palm trees that had for generations offered refuge from the unbearable summer heat had not yet been scorched by weapons of war, when no one would think to ask what you did with your hands while you prayed.

All of them are imagining out loud what could have been if only Iraq had better leaders and if we had made wiser decisions, each of them pausing at some point along the way to ask, incredulously, how we committed so many injustices. America, they said, was supposed to be an example of democracy and freedom for the world, and is this what freedom and democracy look like? The brightness of their orange jumpsuits contrasts sharply against the grey padded walls in the 8×10 room. The sulfur-like stench of body odor is mediated by stale Winston cigarette smoke and synthetic sugar stuck to the concrete floor from the endless supply of energy drinks. As the sound of the air conditioner on its last legs hums along, their eyes reach out to mine, not in a way that belies resentment — though they have the right — but rather an earnest look, and now I understand this is not just a rhetorical question but one that deserves an honest answer because it has real consequences.

I can see now that they are seeking from me some piece of knowledge to make this awful situation intelligible, and I owe it to them, not least because all I’ve done is take since I arrived. But I have no good answers, so we sit in the room together a little while longer, nodding in silence, trying to make sense of how we arrived there.


In late September 2003, the CPA convened a two-day “lessons learned” conference in Baghdad to draw on the experiences of former ministers from Central and Eastern European countries to identify best practices for economies in transition. Evidently impressed by Poland’s “shock therapy” experiences, in which Warsaw rapidly introduced a drastic neoliberal package as it emerged from Soviet domination in 1989, the CPA soon appointed Marek Belka, who previously served as the Polish finance and prime minister, to head CPA’s Office of Economic Policy.

With Belka at the helm, the CPA’s neoliberal package for Baghdad gained coherence: best practices from Poland’s transition could be universalized and superimposed onto Iraq. The country being occupied was, after all, a blank canvas upon which the West could project its own visions, its borders not considered real. And if you feel like you’ve heard or even experienced something similar in a different context over the past 20 years, where a “lesson learned” from one country is quickly translated into an international best practice for all countries with little regard to other factors, well, count yourself in the majority.

More fundamentally, as we reflect on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq on the 20th anniversary of the US invasion, we have an obligation to draw the right lessons, not the ones that are politically expedient. Doing so requires asking difficult questions and finding the courage to seek honest answers, even when unpopular. It requires possessing a willingness to listen and to learn and the patience to unlearn. It requires being humble to the very real limits of US power. In other words, drawing the right lessons today requires us to do all those things we should have done 20 years ago, but didn’t.

Paul J. McKinney

Paul J. McKinney served in the US Army from 2005-2010 and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and is currently serving as a Veterans Innovation Partnership Fellow at the Department of State. The views expressed in this publication are entirely those of the author and do not reflect the views, policy, or position of the US government, Department of State, or Department of Defense.

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