Many recent books about Iraq address only the current conflict while earlier studies limit themselves to Iraq under sanctions or Operation Desert Storm, the military operation that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. In Cradle of Conflict, Knights, a risk consultant at Jane's Information Group, integrates all three eras to provide context to the current situation.
Knights' focus is on military decision-making. With so many of the same decision-makers serving during the first and second Iraq wars—Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, for example—why did policy toward Iraqi president Saddam Hussein change so dramatically? How did the intermediary years of sanctions and containment change both Iraqi and U.S. military tactics?
His narrative is detailed but flows well. He understands the policy process and military decision-making better than most journalists. With a rich array of textual sources and interviews with key U.S. officials, Cradle of Conflict serves well as a reference for now distant episodes such as the 1994 Iraqi deployment toward the Kuwait border and U.S. military planning spurred by Baghdad's obstruction of U.N. inspections in 1997 and 1998. His military analysis is astute. He shows, for example, how the Iraqi military adapted to U.S. tactics during the interwar years.
Knights also interweaves detailed knowledge of Iraqi politics. He explains with insight, for example, Saddam's oil-smuggling schemes with Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani. He examines the mutual decisions which led to the Kurdish leader betraying competitors and other Iraqi opposition figures by allowing Iraqi Republican Guards to attack Erbil in 1996, an episode that challenged the Clinton administration during a sensitive electoral season.
Cradle of Conflict's contribution to understanding the planning behind Operation Iraqi Freedom is especially valuable as the Iraq war continues in its fifth year. While many embedded journalists and military correspondents focus only on the U.S. Army and Marines' contribution to the war, Knights adds insight into the decisions surrounding the air war. He discusses, for example, the failed attempt to decapitate the Iraqi leadership on the first night of the conflict as well as the U.S. decision to dilute the "shock and awe" bombing campaign and to stage it at night rather than in the morning when it might have killed Iraqi intelligence and military planners. He astutely recognizes that Iraqis go passive in the face of crisis until they sense who will be the victor.
Still, Knights leaves some questions unanswered. While acknowledging the CIA's faulty analysis, he does not address the source of its identification of the bunker targeted by the decapitation strike. The bunker did not exist. While Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi is the usual scapegoat in such matters, he could not be in this case because Langley did not talk to him. Knights also accepts too readily the conventional wisdom about the impact of de-Baathification and exaggerates the numbers affected. He also overestimates the willingness of top-tier Saddam loyalists to reintegrate into a new Iraq. Here, greater attention to preexisting insurgency plans would be welcome.
While many journalists—George Packer, David Rieff, and others—skew analysis to fit politics in their accounts, Knights researches, fact-checks, and relies upon more than blogs and fellow journalists. Knights has constructed a superior account that deserves to be read by serious journalists and policy practitioners.