“Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” — George F. Kennan, September 26, 2002
“I ask you, sir, what is the American army doing inside Iraq?… Saddam’s story has been finished for close to three years.” — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, August 13, 2006
In the ruined city of Fallujah, its pale tan buildings pulverized by Marine artillery in the two great assaults of this long war (the aborted attack of March 2004 and then the bloody, triumphant al-Fajr (The Dawn) campaign of the following November), behind the lines of giant sandbags and concrete T-walls and barbed wire that surrounded the tiny beleaguered American outpost there, I sat in my body armor and Kevlar helmet and thought of George F. Kennan. Not the grand old man of American diplomacy, the ninety-eight-year-old Father of Containment who, listening to the war drums beat from a Washington nursing home in the fall of 2002, had uttered the prophetic words above. I was thinking of an earlier Kennan, the brilliant and ambitious young diplomat who during the late 1920s and 1930s had gazed out on the crumbling European order from Tallinn and Berlin and Prague and read the signs of the coming world conflict.
For there in the bunkered Civil-Military Operations Center (known as the C-Moc) in downtown Fallujah, where a few score Marines and a handful of civilians subsisted in a broken-down bunkered building without running water or fresh food, I met young Kennan’s reincarnation in the person of a junior State Department official: a bright, aggressive young man who spent his twenty-hour days rumbling down the ruined streets in body armor and helmet with his reluctant Marine escorts, meeting with local Iraqi officials, and writing tart cables back to Baghdad or Washington telling his bosses the truth of what was happening on the ground, however reluctant they might be to hear it. This young diplomat was resourceful and brilliant and indefatigable, and as I watched him joking and arguing with the local sheikhs and politicos and technocrats — who were meeting, as they were forced to do, in the American bunker — I thought of the indomitable young Kennan of the interwar 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, his spiritual successor, could make it happen.
This was October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution, and I had come to Fallujah, the heart of rebellious Anbar province, to see whether the Sunnis could gather the political strength to vote it down. In a provision originally insisted on by the Kurds, a provision that typified an American-designed political process that had been intended to unify the country but that instead had helped pull it inexorably apart, the proposed constitution could be rejected if, in three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, more than two in three Iraqis coming to the polls voted no. During the first post-Saddam election the previous January, the televised extravaganza of “waving purple fingers” which had become perhaps the most celebrated of the many promised “turning points” of this long war, the Sunnis had boycotted the polls. This time, after Herculean efforts of persuasion and negotiation by the American ambassador, most Sunnis were expected to vote. What would draw them, though — or such anyway was the common wisdom — was the chance not to affirm the constitution but to doom it, and the political process along with it.
And so as I sat after midnight on the eve of the vote, scribbling in my notebook in the dimly lit C-Moc bunker as the young diplomat explained to me the intricacies of the politics of the battered city, I was pleased to see him suddenly lean forward and, with quick glances to either side, offer me a confidence. “You know, tomorrow you are going to be surprised,” he told me, speaking softly. “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. That the Sunnis would actually come out to support the constitution would be an astonishing turnabout and, for the American effort in Iraq, an enormously positive one; for it would mean that despite the escalating violence on the ground, especially here in Anbar, Iraq was in fact moving toward a rough political consensus. It would mean that beneath the bloody landscape of suicide bombings and assassinations and roadside bombs a common idea about politics and compromise was taking shape. It would mean that what had come to seem a misbegotten political process that charted and even worsened the growing divisions among Iraqis had actually become the avenue for bringing them together. It would mean there might be hope.
I took the young diplomat’s words as an invaluable bit of inside wisdom from the American who knew this ground better than any other, and I kept them in mind a few hours later as I traveled from polling place to polling place in that city of rubble, listening as the Fallujans told me of their anger at the Americans and the “Iranians” (as they called the leading Shiite politicians) and of their hatred for the constitution that they believed was meant to divide and thus destroy Iraq. I pondered the diplomat’s words that evening, when I realized that in a long day of interviews I’d not met a single Iraqi who would admit to voting for the constitution. And I thought of his words again several days later when it was confirmed that in Anbar province — where the most knowledgeable, experienced, indefatigable American had confided to me what he had plainly ardently believed, that on the critical vote on the constitution “a great many people would vote yes” — that in Anbar ninety-seven out of every hundred Iraqis who voted had 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 he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.
“You know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”
The ninety-eight-year-old George F. Kennan, sitting in the Washington nursing home as the war came on, knew from eight decades of experience to focus first of all on the problem of what we know and what we don’t know. You know, though you spend your endless, frustrating days speaking to Iraqis, lobbying them, arguing with them, that in a country torn by a brutal and complicated war those Iraqis perforce are drawn from a small and special subset of the population: Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives by meeting with and talking to Americans. Which is to say, very often, Iraqis who depend on the Americans not only for their livelihoods but for their survival.
You know that the information these Iraqis draw on is similarly limited, and that what they convey is itself selected, to a greater or lesser extent, to please their interlocutor. But though you know that much of your information comes from a thin, inherently biased slice of Iraqi politics and Iraqi life, hundreds of conversations during those grueling twenty-hour days eventually 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. And so often, even about the largest things, you do not know.
As this precious stream of flickering knowledge travels “up the chain” from those on the shell-pocked, dangerous ground collecting it to those in Washington offices ultimately making decisions based upon it, the problem of what we really know intensifies, acquiring a fierce complexity. Policymakers, peering second-, third-, fourth-hand into a twilight world, must learn a patient, humble skepticism. 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. Consider, for example, these words of Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking about the Iraq war on November 9, two days after the election and the day after President Bush fired him:
“It is very clear that the major combat operations were an enormous success. It’s clear that in Phase Two of this, it has not been going well enough or fast enough.”