Emma Sky expected to spend three months in Iraq apologizing to the Iraqi people for the invasion launched by George W. Bush and her prime minister, Tony Blair.
That was in 2003, when Sky was a 35-year-old, left-leaning, Oxford-educated, Arab-speaking employee of the British Council, which was looking for civilians to help administer what allied troops had just conquered.
Somewhat to her astonishment, Sky went on to spend much of the following decade there. Very much to her astonishment, for most of those years she worked alongside U.S. generals David Petraeus and, especially, Ray Odierno, helping implement the U.S. surge in 2006-2007 and the drawdown in 2009-2010.
Though her opinion of Bush, Blair and the invasion endured, other views evolved — about the U.S. military, about Iraq and, ultimately, about what caused Iraq’s unraveling, which is the title she gave to her entertaining, sad, enlightening new book.
“The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” is entertaining because Sky is a wry and intelligent companion. It is sad for its account of how the Obama administration squandered what Sky views as the victory that the surge had snatched from the first catastrophic years of U.S. occupation. It is enlightening for how it helps us unlearn much of what we think we know — for example, that “ancient hatreds” rending the Shiite, Sunni and Kurds make Iraq a hopeless case.
Sky flew on a British troop plane in June 2003 into Basra, in southern Iraq, where she had been told she would be met and given her assignment. She was not met, so she made her way to Baghdad and, within days, found herself as the allies’ civilian representative in Kirkuk — essentially, the governor of a major province.
On her seventh night, her house was shot up, with Sky inside it but luckily uninjured. Reluctantly, she presented herself to Col. William Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and landlord of the only safe real estate in town. He welcomed her; in return, she showed up on her first day of working with him with her laptop open to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the protection of civilians in a war zone. “If I find you in violation of any of the articles,” she warned the colonel, “I will take you to The Hague.”
Over the next year suspicions gave way to mutual respect. Sky came to see the U.S. Army as very different from the cartoon villain of her imagination. Yet when she left in June 2004, Iraq was consumed by violence, undone, as she saw it, by “the ignorance, arrogance and naivety” of the U.S. occupation. She had come to love Iraq and its people, though, and in 2006 she accepted Odierno’s request to return as his political adviser. She and the giant, bald Odierno, a former West Point football player who “was not widely read and ... liked beer and sport,” as Sky puts it, were an unlikely pair. When she told him that she had tried to block the 1991 Gulf War by volunteering as a “human shield,” he “looked at me in amazement. He had never known anyone who had done such things or held such views.”Yet they formed a fierce attachment as they served through the surge — months of personal danger and terrible violence slowly, painfully leading to the defeat of al-Qaida and Iran-backed Shiite militias and the return of politics, culminating in a successful national election in 2010.
Sky had come to believe that Shiite-Sunni combat was neither eternal nor inevitable. Before the war, rates of intermarriage had been high. She was heartened by the narrow victory of a nonsectarian electoral bloc — and dismayed when the Obama administration nonetheless backed, in the post-election scramble to form a government, the divisive, Iranian-backed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. That decision, spurred in Sky’s view by the U.S. eagerness to disengage quickly, in turn guaranteed the subsequent failure to negotiate a treaty allowing some U.S. forces to remain.
Christopher Hill, U.S. ambassador to Iraq during much of 2010, takes issue with Sky’s history. In his memoir, he calls her “a very capable but independently minded British national” — but independently minded? — and says that no one but Maliki had the political support to form a government.
Hill, however, echoes Sky’s concern about Washington’s waning interest. “It was increasingly a legacy issue, a matter of keeping faith with our troops rather than seeing Iraq as a strategic issue in the region,” he writes in “Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy.” “By signaling our interest in withdrawal, we began to lose more influence on the ground.”
Perhaps because she had so welcomed Barack Obama’s defeat of the “neocons” in the 2008 U.S. election, Sky assigns most blame to Hill, Vice President Joe Biden and other offficials.
“If only Obama had paid attention to Iraq. He, more than anyone, would understand the complexity of identities, and how people can change,” she writes. “But his only interest in Iraq was in ending the war.”
She left Iraq again in 2010, “sad, angry, and very afraid for Iraq’s future.”
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.