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Perhaps the Unraveling of Emma Sky

I got to see Emma Sky being interview by Max Boot ( at the New York Historical Society the 19 April of last year. You can easily search her BBC comments in relation to her book The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015), and read her reflection piece in The Guardian ("I governed in Iraq, and saw the lack of planning first-hand," 6 July 2016). Although I missed The Guardian event at King's Place on 7 July last year on "Chilcot: The Iraq War Inquiry," I can more or less guess how it went. Photos with the US men of arms, Odierno among others, decorate her writings. Typically she will be the only woman, and certainly the only Western woman, pictured. The book is dedicated to "General Raymond T. Odierno and all those who served in Iraq during the America era (sic) and to my Iraqi friends." Nicely respectful and grateful! It is not easy to strike multinational friendships in the Middle East, New York, London or elsewhere, and Emma Sky's English nationality is inevitably part and parcel of the disunited world of many unequal nations, now reflected in our ominous Brexit and Trump moments. Things are not getting better. Are any lessons being learned? And who will be the appointed teachers and disappointed students?

In live situations, Emma Sky comes across as prim, proper, studious, loquacious, not obsequious, a bit sassy (with emphasis on the "bit" part), eager to converse in foreign affairs, as she gently holds the candle up to structures of power, particularly the U.S. and U.K. governments, in recent war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These geographies have receded as of late. They will come back soon. Yet, she knows how to behave and the proper ideological boundaries are not crossed. There is immense admiration for the professionalism of the U.S. men in uniform. There is a great sense of adventure, almost like springing out of native boredom into vast foreign lands, donning military gear and being a small part of the global action. The Unravelling is an engaging account of her faithful collaboration with the U.S. Army during the double occupation. "High hopes" of a better world, and who would say "no" to that?, yet whose?; and the "missed opportunities," since when exactly?, and again whose? There is no sense of decline of the West here; but the tone and mood of the "missed opportunities" changes (unmistakable euphemism when you press the pause button), depending on what side of the Atlantic you happen to call home more often.

Yes, who owns this disaster?And what sense to make of it? Is the disaster, the number of people killed? Yours or mine? Emma Sky's insistent pronoun in the book is "we" of the "Coalition" government (the c-noun, another euphemism). Yet, the delicate equilibrium in the dedication speaks of Iraqi friends as well. Does disaster refer to the chaos that ensued traveling through three administrations (Bush, Obama and now Trump)? Are "we" considering the lack of control in the transition and the relative retreat from those positions? The violation of the international protocols established for the United Nations is hardly ever contemplated publicly as a big thing by the likes of Boot in the Council of Foreign Relations or elsewhere. The last breath of Western supremacy in the Middle Eastern region is too much of a theme to bring to public discourse: American pragmatism will not tolerate such Western-continental philosophizing. Forget about other dooms from other regions of the world! Emma Sky begins as former critic of the invasion working for the British Council and turns gradually around to join the "bad" guys, concluding on the poverty or lack of planning of the military occupation while trying to broach a peace solution. Now, there is a world of a difference between criticism of a deed for not being properly carried out and the repudiation of the deed as a bad one, based on principles never to be tolerated by officialdom, American or English varieties.

In New York, Emma Sky came out as punchy, pugnacious and likable. A small-sized 48-year-old, fresh faced and self-deprecating, her English diction won the hearts (if not the minds) of the American audience. She's softer and infinitely more articulate than the thicker textures of the American idiom, New York and Texan, but not necessarily more incivisively so. And who does not look pretty with Max Boot around? Emma Sky played her Englishness carefully against the Upper West New York pockets of relative global privilege. It would have been quite different on the London side of the Atlantic. Hers is a good-humoured self-portrayal of a smart English woman among the smart American men in uniform, always keen on offering a different angle of things in the manner of a short-term foreign-affairs analyst or cultural mediator.

Perhaps "governing" is a stretch, and some degree of malfunction does still come through. But, keep the thinking on the ground: she was on the U.S. payroll from June 2003-July 2014 and we go from "direct rule" to the "surge," the "drawdown" to the "aftermath." This is strategy and tactics. There is no grand theory, which is possibly why she able to maintain such an emminent position at Yale. She is director of the University's Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, and a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute, whilst teaching Middle East politics. The years have not been in vain.

Her harshest tones are serviced with hot passion in the direction of the British government during the Blair years, his surprise at seeing her there among the Americans is telling, and the delayed release of the Chilcot report has come to corroborate the high degree of malfunction of the occupation a decade later. A figure such as Jeremy Greenstock, former UK Ambassador to the UN and special envoy for Iraq, would perhaps give us a broader picture. The Americans do this critical dissidence in hindsight much less. Bush did not do what Blair tried to do in front of television cameras and this transatlantic difference is significant. Max Boot will not be caught promoting the adventurous journalism of The Guardian, let us put that way. Towards the American side of things, Emma Sky is a useful mediator and keen cultural translator, holding doubts and reservations about difficult operations, but always falling on this side of the West when the chips are down. On the English side of things, she can play counterpoint to the same fundamental melody of the leading West against the wild rest.

That she remains relatable, warm, likable and well-informed - even with a feeling for relative cultural-difference appreciation - is not necessarily part of the solution. Indeed it may well be part of the problem. The frames of acceptability, mostly American, are not so fundamentally challenged to reach the kind of breaking point that would be utterly unacceptable to her civilized hosts. Otherwise, they would have had none of her and none of it in New York.

It is politically important to notice the self-containment of her intelligence, firmly within the official frames of intelligibility of wars in the past and in the future. Had her message been stronger, no such dedication would have inaugurated her book, surely initially surveyed by appointed readers taking good care of the history of the "American era" in the Middle East. It is not farfetched to imagine a compliant writer willing to follow eternal suggestions before publication. Had the judgment been firmer, harsher, more general and incontinent, the Yale job would not have happened.

So, what is a nice English woman like you doing among those not so nice American men in those messy Middle East wars? One possible answer will be: "I am making the most out of that." There will be others.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero, any comments, get in touch:

Warwick, 26 March 2017

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