Commentary — April 3, 2008, 12:21 pm

NOT ME! A timeline of finger-pointing in Iraq

The New York Times today features a long report in which U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker constructs a timeline with an important lesson for the world: the failure of the battle for Basra was not our fault. In fact, it was entirely the fault of the feckless Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

The key to this claim is in the headline—“U.S. Cites Gaps in Planning of Iraqi Assault on Basra”—and in the first sentence, which informs us that Crocker “first learned of the Iraqi plan on Friday, March 21,” which was just a few days before the assault actually began.

In the initial briefing, Crocker learned only that Maliki “would be heading to Basra with Iraqi troops to bring order to the city.” But more surprises were to come. When the battle began, “it was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived.”

And so we are given to understand that the United States was taken by surprise, that Maliki was a loose cannon, really just a fool. If only he had given us more notice, perhaps superior U.S. military logic might have prevailed. Clearly the people of Iraq will need our guidance for just a little while longer….

The only thing that is surprising about this narrative, alas, is that the New York Times seems to believe it.

Indeed, I myself knew that a major battle for Basra was in the works two weeks before it began.

I knew this not because I had access to top secret briefing materials but because on March 13 the Times—same paper, different reporters—let it be known that “Iraqi Troops May Move to Reclaim Basra’s Port.” And in that report, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, said the forthcoming action would require a “very strong military presence in Basra to eradicate the militia” and that “Western troops would be involved.”

In that same report, Iraqi General Mohan Fahad al-Fraji said, “We have a plan that is already set by [the Iraqi Ministry of Defense] and the prime minister’s office, and we’re going to implement it in a scientific way.”

As it happens, Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad just a few days after this report was published. You might think he’d have heard at least a whisper about it.

And even if he hadn’t, he could have read a follow-up report in the Independent, which carried the admirably straightforward headline, “The final battle for Basra is near, says Iraqi general.” This report was available to the world, including Ambassador Crocker, on March 20, which is one day before Crocker says he first learned of the plan.

The finger-pointing would be comical in its ineptitude if it didn’t also remind us that the Bush Administration has failed in equally absurd ways at far more important tasks.

Single Page

More from Luke Mitchell:

Commentary January 31, 2010, 11:08 am


From the July 2009 issue

We still torture

The new evidence from Guant??¡namo

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today