When I first saw the depth and clarity of his analysis, I couldn’t understand why media outlets in the United States weren’t reporting what he was reporting. After I finished the book, however, I could see that Cockburn reserved some of his most lashing criticism for the U.S. government and big media. Cockburn believes Western alliances with states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have precluded a clear-eyed view of those states’ promotion and assistance of regressive Islamic doctrines like Wahhabism that have since taken up by ISIS.
Cockburn is a very experienced reporter; part of this book is the best description of war reporting that I have ever seen. He downplays “the fog of war” excuse for the confusion in the Western press about successes or failures of certain specific battles or even the overall direction of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya. Reporting the war from embedded positions cannot capture the important component of political change in these countries, and allows temporary military victories to take on more importance than they warrant in light of the overall situation on the ground. “Irregular or guerilla conflicts are always intensely political.” Cockburn makes the point that, although most reporters are trying to do good work in a dangerous environment, they were being manipulated by rebel factions, their editors, the enemy, etc. and must not so easily accept what is presented to them, in English, by “opposition forces” in media-friendly environments.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone reading Cockburn would not concede, whether or not they agree with him, that he makes excellent points. I wish I had seen his work earlier, for then I could have been more discriminating in my own acceptance of official reports and government decisions.
Some reviews have complained that this work was not sufficiently edited, and that some material is presented twice. Each chapter is a self-standing article. Collected, they comprise this book. Some material is used twice in pieces that examine different aspects of the conflicts from various angles. It was not difficult for me to listen to some of the information twice: this is very complicated stuff and I had not seen some of this information before in my reading about the conflicts in the Middle East.
He does say the United States was disingenuous at best in its targeting Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. It was Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who were funding the militants that had the U.S. in their sights, but because the U.S. was earning millions each year in military contracts with these two, we didn’t even criticize them in a meaningful way. The section on Saudi Arabia and its support for the resurgence of Wahhabism was something I had completely missed in the reporting I’d seen to date. Read it and weep.
Cockburn goes into some depth about the disintegration of Iraq and how that is both fueling and the result of the fighting in Syria. He mentions the corrosive sectarian atmosphere in Iraq as a root cause for the militancy of Sunnis, and cites the corruption in the Iraqi Army as a reason for why the army can’t or won’t fight. His description of corruption has the feel of truth; for years we’d known there were problems with troops unwilling or unable to fight but Cockburn’s description of generals buying their rank at great expense makes it all come together. Now it all makes sense. Cockburn doesn’t have much hope that Iraq can hold itself together.
As for the fighting in Syria, Cockburn thinks U.S. involvement on the side of rebels was a mistake. Assad was not a good guy, but the resistance did not have enough time to pull together a coalition of different interests and was still very splintered when we began sending arms. Saudi and other Gulf states were training and sending in groups which aligned with the more radical elements, causing less damage to Assad than to the populace and Western interests there. Some U.S. arms and equipment showed up in the hands of groups under the ISIS aegis, bought, given or captured.
The situation in Syria was catastrophic before the overt support for Assad by the Russians this year. Cockburn couldn’t address that directly since it happened after his book was published, but he does mention that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have serious stake in stabilizing the region and that the U.S. should never have made Assad’s ouster the linchpin of their policy. Cockburn’s argument is that what comes after Assad may be far worse, is already far worse, than allowing him to regain control.
ISIS in Syria apparently cooperates with lots of Sunni groups with competing interests, some not as radical as those who are spreading fear through the violence of their videos online. Saudi-funded groups, once on the ground in Syria, have surprised everyone by taking up with the “terrorists,” aligning themselves in ways that are making them independent from Saudi. Hence the confusion on the ground and in reporting.
I recently reviewed Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick and am forced to admit that Cockburn’s analysis is far more what I was looking for in terms of discussion of events, analysis, and information. Certainly the recapture of Mosul, Iraq by ISIS affiliates in 2014 was just one of the nasty surprises in store for observers with insufficient information. But unless one works up to familiarity with the players and situations in the region, reading Cockburn is like drinking from a firehose. I’m paying attention now.
By the time I learned about this title, prices for it in used paperback had risen to $3000+ per on Amazon. I downloaded the audible.com version, which I highly recommend. On the Goodreads.com site, different editions of this book have different titles and covers, some of which appear to be in Kindle format by Verso. The new title appears to be The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution and is probably are the same book, re-edited and re-issued only months after the first one was published. It is available at less than $3000, I am pleased to report. Read either version. This man is enlightening.
In October, 2015 Cockburn updated his view of the conflict in Syria, in an article published in The London Review of Books. More reading on ISIS:
• Black Flags by Joby Warrick
• The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
• Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
• ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger
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