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The fatal fantasy

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In the ruined city of Falluja, behind the lines of giant sandbags and barbed wire that surrounded a tiny American outpost, I sat in my body armour and helmet and thought of George F Kennan, the grand old man of American diplomacy.

I was thinking of the brilliant young Kennan who during the late 1920s and 1930s gazed out on the crumbling European order from Berlin and Prague and read the signs of the coming world conflict.

In Falluja I met his reincarnation in the person of a junior State Department official.

This bright, aggressive young man spent his 20-hour days rumbling down the ruined streets with reluctant marine escorts, meeting Iraqis and writing tart cables back to Baghdad or Washington telling his bosses the truth of what was happening on the ground.

As I watched him joking and arguing with the local sheikhs, politicos and technocrats I thought of the indomitable young Kennan of the inter-war 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, Kennan’s spiritual successor, could make it happen.

This was October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution. I had come to Falluja, the heart of rebellious Anbar province, to see whether the Sunnis could gather the political strength to vote it down.

The Sunnis had boycotted the first postSaddam election. This time, after Herculean efforts of persuasion by the American ambassador, most Sunnis were expected to vote. Would they affirm the political process or doom it?

After midnight, in the dimly lit American bunker on the eve of the vote, the young diplomat suddenly leant forward and confided quietly: “You know, tomorrow you are going to be surprised. Everybody is going to be surprised.

People here are not only going to vote. People here — a great many people here — are going to vote yes.”

I was stunned, but I took his words as an invaluable bit of inside wisdom from the American who knew this ground better than any other.

As I travelled from polling place to polling place a few hours later, however, Fallujans told me of their hatred for the constitution, which they believed was meant to divide and destroy Iraq. In fact, 97% of those who voted in the province voted no.

With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground my young “Kennan” had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.

You know that in a country torn by a brutal and complicated war those Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives by meeting Americans are very often dependent on the Americans for their livelihoods and survival. You know that the information these Iraqis draw on is limited, and that what they convey is selected to please their interlocutor.

You know that much of your information comes from a thin, inherently biased slice of Iraqi politics and Iraqi life.

But hundreds of conversations lead you to think, must lead you to think, that you are coming to understand what’s happening in this immensely complicated, violent place. You come to believe you know.

As this precious stream of flickering knowledge travels “up the chain” from those collecting it on the shell-pocked ground to those in Washington offices ultimately making decisions based upon it, the problem of what we really know intensifies.

Policymakers, peering second, third, fourth-hand into a twilight world, must learn a patient, humble scepticism.

Or else, confronted with an ambiguous reality they do not like, they turn away, ignoring the shadowy, shifting landscape and forcing their eyes stubbornly toward their own ideological light. Unable to find clarity, they impose it.

Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the war — how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential and obvious mistakes — must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification.

Extracts from The Sunday Times Review article, ‘The fatal fantasy’ published December 10, 2006

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