TheDC Interview: Aided by hindsight and firsthand exposure, foreign correspondent Michael Totten sees Iraq differently

Michael Totten’s new book, “In the Wake of the Surge,” chronicles his first-hand view of how President Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge staved off disaster in that war-torn country.

“Without the surge, and assuming an American withdrawal, Iraq probably wouldn’t exist today except as a geographic abstraction like Somalia,” Totten, one of the world’s premier foreign correspondents, told The Daily Caller.

Totten says he is “torn” over the question of whether the Iraq war was worth it, knowing everything he knows now. But he insists it would be nothing short of “silly” not to recognize that the surge ultimately dealt a strategic blow to Al Qaida.

“Al Qaida declared Iraq its most important battlefield in the world,” he told TheDC. “And it lost. If Al Qaida had won, it would have topped 9/11 because it would have militarily defeated the Marines.”

Totten explored how Iraq was brought back from the brink of disaster, shared his prognosis for Iraq’s future, discussed whether the Arab Spring can be traced back to Iraq, and much more.

What was it like reporting from Iraq?

Not what I expected.

Reporting from the Kurdish region was like reporting from a place like Belize or Costa Rica. Writing “it doesn’t suck here!” was almost a scoop at the time. Almost everyone I knew in the world, and especially my family, thought I was crazy to visit Iraqi Kurdistan because it’s in Iraq, but there was no war and almost no violence there. It’s safer than Kansas, but it took almost a week before I felt as though I was safer there than I would have been in Kansas.

I’ve experienced this sort of thing a number of times. Most of the hard and dangerous places I’ve been to are less hard and dangerous than they appear in the media. Explosions and mayhem make the news while the lack of explosions and mayhem do not.

Baghdad was more or less what I expected — moderately violent and scary, but not downright terrifying like World War II must have been. What did shock me, though, in the Arab parts of Iraq, was the condition of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. That place was just torn to pieces. It is the one city I’ve visited that was actually in worse shape than you’d have any idea from following news reports. (I’ve heard Haiti and Darfur are also worse than you would think from the media.)

Ramadi actually did look like World War II had slammed into it. Entire swaths of the city had been completely destroyed, and I mean erased. Not even rubble remained in whole parts of it. Entire panoramic areas looked like gigantic parking lots. Buildings were leveled to their foundations and the pieces hauled away leaving nothing but ground as flat as Nebraska. Several American military officers there compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. They were exaggerating, but not by as much as you might think.

Where do you think Iraq would be today if President Bush had not opted to implement the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency strategy?

Without the surge, and assuming an American withdrawal, Iraq probably wouldn’t exist today except as a geographic abstraction like Somalia. Kurdistan would be de-facto autonomous as it is now, but so would the Sunni and Shia parts of the country. The Arab halves, though, would be ruled by terrorist armies.

Al Qaida would be the masters of Anbar Province and a few other areas in the so-called Sunni Triangle, and the Shia part of Iraq would be an Iranian satellite state in Mesopotamia like Hezbollahland is in Lebanon. We probably would have gotten sucked back into another war later, and have had to start all over again.