Book Review; The Unraveling by Emma Sky


President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington 2013 | AP

Just finished this book. ( Emma Sky, The Unraveling. High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq) Was given to me my an Iraqi friend who attended one of Emma Sky’s lectures and was impressed by her knowledge…if not all of her opinions.

Ms Emma Sky is a very accomplished Arabist, diminutive but obviously a tough lady. She spent years in the Arab world, especially Iraq, where she became the primary advisor to General  Ray Odierno, who  was described   by General McCrystal in his book  “My Share of the Task.“…… ” A brilliant Brit who had started the war as a bitter critic of the war, Emma became nearly inseparable from her boss, Ray ( General Odierno) during his time commanding in Iraq.”

I enjoyed the book primarily because  of her empathy and  understanding of the typical American soldier in Iraq and his perhaps naive belief that the Iraqis would appreciate what he was doing and sometimes dying for.  She came to this opinion, despite her frequent somewhat snide remarks about the American propensity for prayer and belief in God as well as her stated opinion that Americans had brought about the destruction of Iraq  as a nation and society.  Her observations on American culture , in keeping with her  academic British left wing world view, were  caustic, exaggerated, but not untrue. Her observations of the little America of Camp Victory  were in keeping with my own, Too many people not doing  much of anything but putting in their time. The vast quantities of food,  American style, served in the huge dining facility, were seen by her as evidence of “American excess.” Her opinion of the contractors were, in keeping with that of most soldiers, as being of a lower life form. Most of all, the absence of alcohol by American military regulation, was frowned on by Ms Sky, who in various passages of the book indicated  she enjoyed the availability of alcoholic drinks.

Often the most trenchant opinions were out of the mouths of various sheikhs she quoted, along with their praise of the British as more understanding of the Iraqis . To her credit she was not entirely in agreement with this. Actually,  I had always been of that opinion, but it changed as result what I saw and  heard while in Iraq and read since then. The British made a mess of their area of responsibility in southern Iraq.  Part of the reason has been their  long discomfort  with the Shi’a and  favoring the Sunni community in Iraq, as evidenced in the memoirs of Gertrude Bell. In fact Ms Sky was referred to as “Emma Bell” by Kurdish leaders because they believed she  favored the Sunni Arabs of Kirkuk.

In the book MS Sky never changes her mind that the invasion of Iraq was a horrible mistake, but as she makes clear, Iraq was on its way to stability, perhaps even a semblance of a democracy but with the advent Obama presidency all that changed.

She writes of the success of  General Petraeus’s  ( “the most intense man she had ever met”) management of the “surge” and the visible positive changes taking place in Iraqi society. She saw that as being evidence that perhaps something good would become of the invasion “mistake.” She was upset by Hillary Clinton’s gratuitously insulting remark to General Petraeus at the senate hearing  that his positive testimony “required the suspension of disbelief.”

On Obama’s visit to Iraq, Ms Sky waxed enthusiastically, “There I was in the presence of Barrack Obama, the president of the United States, and the living embodiment of the American Dream!” After the crazy era of the neoconservatives, the US was no led by a man whose worldview I believed I shared.”

Alas and alack,  Ms Sky’s idol turned out to have feet of clay. Things began going downhill fast with the departure of Ambassador Crocker, a humble and quiet spoken man, and the arrival of Ambassador Chris Hill. According to Ms Sky, obviously from  an inner circle of US State Department people she dealt with, Hill did not want to come to Iraq but was basically pressured to do so  by none other than…….Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Another fine mess she got us into, Using a line from the old Laurel and Hardy movies.

Hill was uncomfortable with Iraqis , basically he did not like them, and mostly stayed in his compound, interfering in US military activities.  There was no direction from the WhiteHouse and a visit  by the congenial bumbler, Joe Biden, did nothing to help. His oft stated opinion that Iraq should be divided up pleased only the Kurds and infuriated the Iraqi leadership.

As one Sunni sheikh told Ms Sky…”Miss Sky, there is talk of dividing the country into  Sunnistan, Shiastan, Kurdistan. This will create war.Where will the borders be? How will the water and oil be divided?….. you know miss Emma who controls this country? Iran, Iran, Iran…..our goal is just to keep our dignity, our heritage.” It is a sentiment I absolutely agree with. Another three mini states in the Arab world is simply a recipe for further warfare.

On her return to Iraq in 2014, Ms Shy found a crumbling Iraq, with Iraqis dispirited, weary of war and feeling hopeless.  She tried to explain to her Iraqi hosts how US soldiers felt about the deterioration situation in Iraq.

“I tried to explain how the American military I had spoken to felt angry and betrayed.” She went on to say…”After the initial mistakes they felt  they had turned the war around during the surge.They had done everything asked of them to the best of their ability. But all the gains had evaporated. There was nothing to be seen from all the blood and treasure we had invested.” As the author makes clear, it was evident Obama had no interest in Iraq and simply wanted out at any cost.  The excuse of the failure of the Status of Forces Agreement  between the Obama negotiators and Iraqis simply does not ring true in view of the success of the earlier one arrived at under Bush.  Ms. Sky depicts the hard work and persistence required to achieve anything with the Iraqi government.

In summary this is book to be read by officials or military folks going to Iraq. I disagree with her characterization of the invasion as a tragic mistake but I certainly agree that the precipitous departure was simply a result of domestic political considerations by the Obama administration. And it was indeed a tragedy for American influence in the world and the Iraqis …and now millions of other Arabs and Africans torn from their  roots by  religious and political chaos  in a world without central and imposing leadership.









About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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