Michael Totten

Interviewed in The Daily Caller

Daily Caller senior editor Jamie Weinstein interviewed me about my new book In the Wake of the Surge.

What was it like reporting from Iraq?

Not what I expected.

Reporting from the Kurdish region was like reporting from a place like Belize or Costa Rica. Writing “it doesn’t suck here!” was almost a scoop at the time. Almost everyone I knew in the world, and especially my family, thought I was crazy to visit Iraqi Kurdistan because it’s in Iraq, but there was no war and almost no violence there. It’s safer than Kansas, but it took almost a week before I felt as though I was safer there than I would have been in Kansas.

I’ve experienced this sort of thing a number of times. Most of the hard and dangerous places I’ve been to are less hard and dangerous than they appear in the media. Explosions and mayhem make the news while the lack of explosions and mayhem do not.

Baghdad was more or less what I expected — moderately violent and scary, but not downright terrifying like World War II must have been. What did shock me, though, in the Arab parts of Iraq, was the condition of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. That place was just torn to pieces. It is the one city I’ve visited that was actually in worse shape than you’d have any idea from following news reports. (I’ve heard Haiti and Darfur are also worse than you would think from the media.)

Ramadi actually did look like World War II had slammed into it. Entire swaths of the city had been completely destroyed, and I mean erased. Not even rubble remained in whole parts of it. Entire panoramic areas looked like gigantic parking lots. Buildings were leveled to their foundations and the pieces hauled away leaving nothing but ground as flat as Nebraska. Several American military officers there compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. They were exaggerating, but not by as much as you might think.

Where do you think Iraq would be today if President Bush had not opted to implement the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency strategy?

Without the surge, and assuming an American withdrawal, Iraq probably wouldn’t exist today except as a geographic abstraction like Somalia. Kurdistan would be de-facto autonomous as it is now, but so would the Sunni and Shia parts of the country. The Arab halves, though, would be ruled by terrorist armies.

Al Qaida would be the masters of Anbar Province and a few other areas in the so-called Sunni Triangle, and the Shia part of Iraq would be an Iranian satellite state in Mesopotamia like Hezbollahland is in Lebanon. We probably would have gotten sucked back into another war later, and have had to start all over again.

How important was General David Petraeus to the success of the surge? How will he stand in history?

The surge wouldn’t have happened without David Petraeus. It was his strategy. He figured out how to make counterinsurgency work when he was commander in Mosul, but the city deteriorated again when he was rotated out. But when he applied his skills to all of Iraq he proved he knew what he was doing and his strategy has since been exported to Afghanistan.

If Iraq manages to hold itself together, he’ll go down as one of the great generals in American military history. Even if Iraq unravels again — and it might — at least he prevented Al Qaida from taking over part of the country and he staved off what would have been seen by all as an American defeat at the hands of our worst enemies. Without Petraeus, Iraq would have become an absolute catastrophe for Americans and Iraqis alike.

Some argue that American and coalition forces delivered Al Qaida a significant defeat in Iraq that had major strategic implications for the terror organization. Do you believe that? If so, explain the significance.

I absolutely agree with that. It’s true, and I think arguing otherwise at this late date would be silly. Al Qaida declared Iraq its most important battlefield in the world. And it lost. If Al Qaida had won it would have topped 9/11 because it would have militarily defeated the Marines.

Killing civilians is relatively easy, but beating some of the best warriors in the world is an extraordinary accomplishment. You can imagine Osama bin Laden’s boasts and how that would help his recruitment drive. Before 9/11 he said the United States was a paper tiger that could be defeated like the Soviet Union had been in Afghanistan. If he was proven correct, the size and power and prestige of Al Qaida would have mushroomed. Losing its most important fight, however, devastated Al Qaida’s morale and its ability to recruit many new members.

Your friend Christopher Hitchens blurbed your last book, The Road to Fatima Gate. He is a long time proponent of Kurdish independence. Do you believe the Kurds should be allowed to break off from Iraq and form their own state?

I do. The Kurds were promised a state of their own after World War I, yet they were denied it. Why should they be? The Israelis get their own state, the Turks get their own state, the Persians have their own state, and pretty much everyone, including me, thinks the Palestinians should and will get their own state. Why not the Kurds? There are many more Kurds than there are Palestinians, and they’ve been treated much worse by the governments of every single country in which they live.

Given everything we know, do you believe the Iraq war was worth the cost in both life and treasure?

I’m torn.

I thought overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a good idea at the time, but I didn’t anticipate that we would get sucked into more wars in Iraq, wars against Al Qaida and Iranian-sponsored Shia militias after the Baath Party regime was demolished. I probably should have seen it coming, but I assumed, wrongly, that the Arabs of Iraq would respond to liberation the way Iraq’s Kurds did.

I understand the Middle East much better now than I did at the time, so if I knew then what I know now I would not have been able to support the war in Iraq.

I wouldn’t oppose it, though, either. I’m not the type of person to get in the way of a war against a genocidal totalitarian tyrant. I’m glad Saddam is gone, and I don’t pretend that he’d be gone today by other means if an American-led coalition hadn’t taken him out. And I couldn’t look my Kurdish friends in the eye and say their liberation was a mistake. It is not physically or morally possible for me to do that.

So at this point I have to say I’m an agnostic. I’d rather dramatize and analyze the war, as I do in my book, than cheerlead or oppose it.

Had American forces not invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, what would Saddam Hussein’s Iraq look like today? What problems would it pose to America’s Middle East strategy?

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would remain the totalitarian prison state that it always was, only the international sanctions against him would almost certainly have elapsed. The whole sanctions regime was coming apart before the invasion.

And can you imagine how dangerous the Middle East would be if we were worried about two Persian Gulf nations acquiring nuclear weapons instead of only Iran? I don’t doubt for a minute that the Middle East is a better place now because Saddam is out of power. Whether it was worth the high cost is debatable.

Are you optimistic about Iraq’s future?

On even numbered days, yes. On odd numbered days, no. I was a witness when General David Petraeus defeated Al Qaida and the Shia militias, and I dramatize that in my book. The country is mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, though, and I think I show that pretty thoroughly, too. One of the most pessimistic things I ever heard in that country was said by an American corporal who was standing outside FOB War Eagle in Baghdad where he had spent the better part of a year. “Iraq,” he said between drags on his cigarette, “will always be Iraq.”

Some people argue that democracy in Iraq was a major influence on the Arab Spring. From your reporting in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, do you buy that argument?

No — sorry, I don’t.

Never once have I heard an Arab anywhere in the Middle East say they felt inspired by anything that happened in Iraq. Most think the war was unjust. I think they’re wrong about that even when I’m inclined to think the war might have been a mistake. What really freaked them out, though, was how the place came apart after the tyrant was gone. Arabs fear each other more than you might think if you pay attention to all the happy talk about the pan-Arab nation. Arab Nationalism is a popular idea in part because it promises a yearned-for unity that does not exist and never has.

The two freest Arab countries, Iraq and Lebanon, are the two that have suffered the worst Arab-on-Arab violence in the modern era. Sectarianism, not freedom, should be blamed for the communal slaughter in both places, and everyone knows it, but the civil wars in each place nevertheless scared the daylights out of people all over the region. They looked at Iraq and shuddered at the charnel house it became.

Nobody felt inspired. Nobody.

You can order your copy of In the Wake of the Surge in trade paperback or you can start reading it right now on your Kindle.