The Mess They Made

By Gwynne Dyer

Books attempting to explain “what went wrong” in Iraq (to borrow the title of a canonical neo-conservative text on the Middle East) are getting to be very thick on the ground. Indeed, The Mess They Made is foreign affairs columnist Gwynne Dyer’s fourth consecutive go at the subject since 2003’s Ignorant Armies. And after last year’s exercise in self-evaluation, With Every Mistake, a collection of Dyer’s newspaper columns that showed where even he got things wrong in the run-up to the war, he’s back in the prophetic-prescriptive mode.

Dyer has always taken pleasure in needling conventional thinking. 2004’s Future: Tense began with the bold statement that “the United States needs to lose the war in Iraq as soon as possible.” Since, in Dyer’s eyes, the war has now already been lost, we need to turn our attention to what comes next. And that is the inevitable American withdrawal: “Getting out of Iraq is the least bad thing the United States can do now, and the sooner the better.”

And here is where the unconventional thinking comes in. Dyer says that the West’s withdrawal from the Middle East is in everyone’s best interest, since it doesn’t matter (to us) who runs these countries, and in the end it’s none of our business, anyway. Apart from the oil, which will continue to flow regardless, “the entire region is of little economic or strategic importance to the rest of the world.” And so he advises we stop with the hand wringing, “lie back, and try to enjoy the ride.”

This is more than a little flip, but the informal and contrarian tone helps to deflate the apocalyptic rhetoric that has been so important in selling the bogus war on terror, and indeed in creating “the mess” in the first place. Though some of Dyer’s points are debatable, he is clear and forthright in his review of the present situation and his projections of worst-case scenarios. He also provides a useful historical guide to the region’s problems and offers some fresh thinking on subjects such as the mythic “Shia crescent” and Israel’s existential dilemma.

Given how much has already been published on Iraq, it’s hard for any new look at the subject to stand out. But The Mess They Made should be on the shortlist for those seeking a timely, informed point of view untainted by an aggressive agenda.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2007.

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