Transcript: Jonathan Steele, 29 May 2008

Thom Hartmann interviews Jonathan Steele, the senior foreign correspondent and in-house columnist on international affairs for the London Guardian, about his new book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq and about reporting standards.

[Thom Hartmann] Jonathan Steele, the senior foreign correspondent and in-house columnist on international affairs for the London Guardian is with us. His new book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq. Jonathan Steele, welcome to the program.

[Jonathan Steele] Thank you for having me on.

[Thom Hartmann] You, sir, were, I believe you made eight trips to Iraq?

[Jonathan Steele] Since the invasion, that's correct.

[Thom Hartmann] Since the invasion. And on one of those trips you yourself were kidnapped if I understand this correctly.

[Jonathan Steele] That's correct, but it, I wouldn't like to make a big thing of it, it was a very short experience, lasted about 2 or 3 hours and luckily it was by the Shia group connected with Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army. I think if you're captured by one of the Sunni extremist groups, your chances of survival are virtually zero. With the Shia it's usually for some political gain or because they are suspicions of what you're doing and if they are satisfied that you are genuine then they'll release you. That's what happened with me. I'd been to a couple of American bases in the city of Najaf and they thought that I must be some kind of spy but I managed to convince them fairly easily in fact that that was nonsense.

[Thom Hartmann] Right, but what it what it illustrates is that a reporter in Iraq trying to be a reporter is, how do we say it, that normal reporting, that the kind, you know, the kind of normal reporting that you expect to come out of the country, is a very difficult thing to accomplish in that country.

[Jonathan Steele] Yes it means you have to sort of live a kind of double life, you know. On one day you can go and talk to the Shia people and then if you want to talk to Americans you have to do so on a separate occasion so that they don't know what your programme is, so you may even have to be embedded with the Americans. The "mistake", as it were, that I made in Najaf, and this is back in 2004, was that I spoke to some of the Muqtada Al-Sadr people in the morning and then having finished my talks with them, my interview with them, went off to see the Americans, so I suppose they thought I was sort of reporting back to the Americans what I'd heard from them, kind of things and as you rightly say, you can't do that now. You have to sort of live a double life - do one thing one day and something else another and, you know, because of all this suspicion and confusion.

[Thom Hartmann] I bring this up because, you know, right now this whole Scott McClellan thing is breaking here in the United States and Katie Couric who does the, who's the CBS evening newscaster, yesterday in an interview just kind of let it slip that she asked some tough questions of the administration, they called her executive producer and said we're gonna cut off your access if you keep asking these kind of hard questions.

[Jonathan Steele] Right.

[Thom Hartmann] And that the, you know, that it's kind of hard to cover the war in this context either. But just this whole issue of how particularly we in the United States, I realize you're British and reporting for the Guardian, one of the, whenever I'm over there I've always found the Guardian to be one of the finest. You know, it's very aggressive paper but which is one of the finest papers in your country. That reporting in the United States is dying and it seems to me that, first of all I want to get to the question of, you know, how did America and Britain lose Iraq, the topic of your book and the title of your book. But how also did in particular in the United States and to some extent in the UK, how did we lose the, how did we get the public all enthusiastic about this and then how has all this reporting gotten so twisted I guess is the bottom line.

[Jonathan Steele] You mean the prewar reporting all about the weapons of mass destruction?

[Thom Hartmann] Well even to this day you've got reporters who are running around with John McCain going, 'yeah everything's great'.

[Jonathan Steele] Right, well I think a lot of it is that people don't talk to Iraqis. You know, they get the British or the American perspective on things and then they speak to maybe a few of the top politicians, Iraqi politicians, who are really sort of very close to the American occupation. They don't really get out into the street and talk to ordinary Iraqis and get their impression. It's become very difficult to do that simply because of this security issue. You can barely get out of Baghdad and then even in Baghdad you have to make your plans to see somebody and then turn up and not spend more than about a half an hour there just in case word gets round that there's a foreigner who might be a good target for kidnapping for ransom money or for worse. So we're terribly restricted and I think people don't often give credit for that enough in their reporting. They give the impression to the ordinary reader that they're able to do a proper reporting job and the results that the reader reads are based on a wide cross section of opinion, when in fact they're not.

[Thom Hartmann] Right. So we think that we're getting the whole story when in fact we're not, and you've actually been out there. You've been, as I said, kidnapped. Your book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq, what's the essential, the essence?

[Jonathan Steele] Well the essential point is that I'm trying to challenge the conventional wisdom. We all know what that is: it's that the thing was all about blunders made after the Saddam regime was toppled. One blunder is getting rid of the Iraqi national army so there was no security force of any kind apart from the occupation troops. The second was getting rid of the Baath Party and preventing anybody who had been a member of the Baath Party continuing in a managerial position, which certainly meant you decapitated the entire professional class in Iraq, so there was nobody to run the country.

But the assumption behind those arguments, that it was going about blunders, is that there could have been such a thing as a successful occupation if the British and Americans had been more sensitive and intelligent and run the whole thing more efficiently, there could now be a successful, there could have been a successful occupation. My point is that this is a complete misreading of the political context and the history of Iraq.

The two countries that have invaded and intervened most consistently in Ira and in the Middle East in general over the last century, really, are the British and the Americans. So clearly any Iraqi would be highly suspicious; what is the agenda of these people? They are coming in, they say, to help us. But are we sure that they haven't got their own agenda and particularly after Saddam was toppled, and when it became apparent there was no Weapons of Mass Destruction, Iraqis were saying to me and other reporters, "you know, why are you still here? You know, we hear your president saying 'mission accomplished' and we agree with that: Saddam's gone, we're glad of that, so why are you still here?"

And my argument really is that that was a very dominant feeling among Iraqis and it's never been taken property on board by the Americans and the British and they still to this day haven't given a date or timetable for when they're leaving.

[Thom Hartmann] You know, I talk with American Democratic politicians and strongly recommend to them that they should stop using the word 'war'; that we're not fighting a war right now; the war was over, George Bush declared the end of the war on May 1 2003. He was right; we had taken down the government, occupied the country, we'd done all the things important win a war.

[Jonathan Steele] Exactly.

[Thom Hartmann] Then began the occupation, and they need to take the word 'war' out of their vocabulary and start using the word 'occupation', because occupations are appropriately ended and wars can only be won or lost.

[Jonathan Steele] Good.

[Thom Hartmann] It completely changes the language of the whole thing, and in fact in the Philippines, I mean the United States occupied the Philippines for forty years in conflict after the Spanish American war, before there was any semblance of a semi autonomous and independent government and stability brought the Philippines, and there are still insurgents in the Philippines shooting at American and Philippine soldiers.

[Jonathan Steele] Right, right, right.

[Thom Hartmann] So, have there ever been any successful occupations around the world?

[Jonathan Steele] Well I think there were two and they were particularly irrelevant to Iraq, and yet they were the ones that Jerry Bremer and other American officials took as their template.

[Thom Hartmann] You're talking about Germany and Japan?

[Jonathan Steele] Germany and Japan in 1945 which of course were successful. There was no resistance and things went pretty smoothly. But that's quite different I mean, Iraq was not flat on its feet after four years of war like Japan. It was a very different culture from the ones of the occupiers, whereas Germany, obviously the German people have very similar values and culture and tradition and background as most Americans but they just had one terrible period which was actually an aberration in historical terms of 13 years of Nazi rule. But to come in and help them get on their feet, they were pretty much welcomed.

But Iraq is a very different culture from the United States or from Britain and a very different history and the long record of intervention, and even things like sanctions. You know, for most ordinary Iraqis, they remember sanctions; one of the worst ten years of their lives. But the Americans would never, Bremer would never discuss sanctions; he just air brushed it out of the picture, he didn't understand. He just thought there would be a blank check of gratitude for having toppled Saddam and then that this gratitude would last indefinitely.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. These guys went in with a level of naiveté or hubris, I think, is probably the more appropriate word, that is absolutely breathtaking.

[Jonathan Steele] Absolutely.

[Thom Hartmann] And therefore we're getting our butt handed to us. Jonathan Steele, his new book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq. Must reading, for your must reading list. He's the senior foreign correspondent, in-house columnist on international affairs for the London Guardian and Jonathan thank you for taking time to share with us today.

[Jonathan Steele] Thank you again for letting me talk to you.

[Thom Hartmann] Thank you.

Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.

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