Iraq is Topic A in Washington right now. It's also Topic B, C, and D. The foreign policy community is more polarized than it's been in years. And only 45 percent of Americans think George W. Bush has a clear policy on Iraq.
This debate provides a ready-made market niche for The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Iraq, written by Joseph Tragert, a Middle East specialist formerly at the international consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. Inside the wonk biosphere of Washington, D.C., the arguments for and against attacking Saddam Hussein are well-worn turf. But, anyone who's come late to this convoluted conversation over smart sanctions, weapons inspections, and pre-emptive use of force can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed. The "experts" who crowd the editorial pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal certainly aren't helping. They increasingly target their columns at one another—it's as if the op-ed pages have become so starved for new arguments that they've begun cannibalizing themselves.
But is the "Idiot's Guide" series—which has sold more than 15 million copies offering advice on everything from amazing sex to dealing with in-laws—really up to the task of deconstructing American foreign policy? If the only criteria were book sales, then the answer would an unequivocal "yes." The series' first foray into the geopolitical equivalent of Cliffs Notes—The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict, published in 1999—has emerged as one of the guides' top five best sellers, along with Catholicism, the Bible, Islam, and Spanish. (Says online reviewer "Manny the Diplomat," who lives in his family's basement: "The next time some asshole at the water cooler goes spouting off about the need for Sharon to accept a Palestinian state without provisions you can knock that fat bastard off his feet with succinct points about Arafat's policy of uncompromising terror. … That ought to shut him up fast and have the cute chicks thinking you're worldly and sophisticated.")
I don't know (yet) if The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Iraq will help me impress women at the water cooler. It certainly didn't impress me. For starters, I found the guide's trademark flippancy—with groan-inducing subheads (i.e., "Iraq and a Hard Place") and happy-face "Iraq Fact" margin notes—to be weirdly out of sync for a book that touches upon bloody palace coups and the extermination of 5,000 Kurds. And, while there's some very good material on Iraq's modern history, the guide's user-friendly, just-the-facts format is often squandered on such trivia as highlights of Mesopotamian prehistory and famous biblical events. There is no concise accounting of how many of Saddam's missiles and weapons of mass destruction might have survived the U.N. weapons inspectors; nor is there a detailed "who's who" listing of the various opposition groups—such as the Iraqi National Congress and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—that the Bush administration has recently cherry-picked to be our purported allies in a democratically ruled Iraq.
Most disappointing of all, I had hoped for at least a straightforward critique of all the pros and cons of attacking Iraq. But on several key points, the book merely regurgitates the conventional wisdom of White House press releases and Fox News pundits. Or, put another way, it simplifies arguments that are already way too simplistic. For instance, when describing Saddam, the guide says, "This is the guy who has started two wars, used chemical weapons on his own people, killed his son-in-law, and tried to assassinate former President Bush. This is not a person who can be relied on to behave rationally."
Richard Perle couldn't have said it better himself. Oh wait, he did. Last year, testifying before Congress on the need for missile defense against Iraq, he said, "I frankly don't want to count on the rational judgment of a man who used poison gas against his own people." Yet, while few would dispute that Saddam is ruthless and impulsive, it's quite a leap to label him irrational to the point of being undeterrable. Above all else, Saddam is a survivor. He didn't use chemical weapons against U.S. forces during the Gulf War, knowing all too well that if he did the United States would have gone all the way to Baghdad.
The question of whether Saddam is "irrational" or "impulsive" is not just a matter of semantics. It's the defining issue in the debate over whether to pre-emptively attack Iraq. Would Saddam Hussein really be crazy enough to strike the U.S. homeland in the face of devastating retaliation? Apparently, the Idiot's Guide thinks so: "The level of Saddam's bitterness toward the United States and his own desire to go down in history as a great Arab leader, suggests that we should not be surprised if Saddam tries at some point, by some means or other, to reach out and touch Americans at home." The guide also adds that "[m]any consider such an attack inevitable." That's true, but "many" also do not—among them, Brent Scowcroft, who recently argued that Saddam is "unlikely to risk his investment in weapons of mass destruction, much less his country, by handing such weapons to terrorists who would use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return address."
To be fair, the author acknowledges that his Idiot's Guide is "basically a user-friendly introduction" to Iraq and offers an extensive list of recommended articles, books, and Web sites that could help readers draw their own conclusions. But that sounds uncomfortably like the standard line from the beginning of Cliffs Notes, noting that the study guides are not meant to substitute for the original works. We all know the only reason anyone buys Cliffs Notes is so he won't have to do the heavy reading. And, so is the case with the Idiot's Guides—they're user-friendly cheat sheets so you don't have to read anything else.
Anyone in the market for a good Iraq cheat sheet would be better off getting copies of the federal government's very own version of the Idiot's Guides—published, appropriately enough, for members of Congress. Analysts at the Congressional Research Service crank out background reports on topics as diverse as global arms sales to a concise history of U.S. efforts to change the Iraqi regime. (Sen. John McCain describes the reports as "high-quality, concise, factual and unbiased—a rarity in Washington.") CRS does not distribute its reports to the general public, but you can find some copies on government Web sites, such as the State Department's. Or, you can order paper copies through Penny Hill Press.
The cost of the reports? For nonstudents, $19.95 or $29.95, depending on the length. A better briefing on a potential war, plus a guarantee of no smiley faces? Priceless.