The New York Times is featuring a piece stating that Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars that have run from 1991 to the present.
So what does ‘winning in Iraq’ look like, asks the Times? Something like this:
A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, Washington’s influence in Iraq is limited.
It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some, apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown-edition front page.
But it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.
At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward-operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.
The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration’s message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said President Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self reliant Iraq.”
So it was off-message—I was off-message—and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products. (The Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Busloads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship that had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”
In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.
Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air-conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.
I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits that were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister, who explained that the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. The fruit tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow that I was too tired to make.
A year later, in 2011, I was back in Washington. I set down the same broad ideas about Iran being victorious in layperson’s terms—and was turned down for an oped by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.
The best I could do with this knowledge—that in yet another way the war had been for nothing—was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the Times by six years.
As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.
Peter Van Buren is the author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, available now. Follow him @WeMeantWell.