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Tough Sell

Tough Sell

Tom Basile
ARRSE Rating
1.5 Mushroom Heads
'Tough Sell' is Tom Basile's personal memoire of his time as Senior Press Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority. He went to Iraq after the war ended in 2003 and was in post for a year or so, leaving in 2004. He enjoyed high level access and worked with senior figures including the then leader of the Authority, Paul Bremer. Prior to this, he was a Bush administration staffer in the US. The book sets out to tell the story of that period with particular regard to the media aspects and the cover blurb assures us that it sets out to teach vital lessons of critical import in the war against Islamic terror. In some ways it succeeds, but possibly not in the way intended.

'Tough Sell' is Basile's first book and it is not an easy read. The style is often stilted and the formulaic descriptions of US service personnel and their willingness to sacrifice reflect his PR and political background and are ritualistic enough to verge on the Homeric. The editor has to carry the can for that one but the content and the observations belong to Basile and it's from that content and those observations that one can get a very clear picture of where things started to go wrong and why they kept heading in the wrong direction.

Basile was a civilian who was offered the chance to work in Iraq by dint of being part of the Bush Administration. That he did so is to his credit but the first chunk of the book is larded to an unhelpful degree with comments about how dangerous it all was and constant reminders that he was headed to/going to work in a warzone, with further reflections on how dangerous it all was. The constant harping on is wearing and grates very quickly and one is left grinding through the pages having to constantly remember that he's not writing with a military audience in mind (at least I hope he wasn't).

Perhaps part of the reason Basile harps on about the risk is that he had no previous experience of hostile environments and, terrifyingly for someone in his position, absolutely no previous experience of the culture he was being asked to work in. The lack of knowledge and therefore empathy betrays the story that Basile is trying to tell. A give away is on those few occasions when his writing sparks into life as he discusses Americans and American issues, such as the antagonism between Regulars and Reservists, things he can understand and identify with. By contrast, the Iraqis flit in and out as two-dimensional beings and there is no real evidence that he took the necessary time and trouble to really understand the problem set or the people he was being asked to deal with. When the Iraqis fail to respond as he feels they should to new judicial appointments, Basile views it as ingratitude when a more perceptive commentator might have reflected on the fact that, after decades of sham legalism, a cynical populace might require considerably more substantial bona fides for their latest legal masters than simply the imprimatur of Uncle Sam.

Similar impatience is shown towards the Western press who are constantly lambasted for refusing to pick up good news stories and instead preferring to skulk round Iraq picking up stories to knock the American effort. Far from feeling any sympathy, one can only wonder at the naivete given that that has generally been the Western media's modus operandi since the Vietnam War. Given his role in Baghdad, Basile doesn't really contribute much in the way of a solution beyond observing how terribly unfair it all was.

Ultimately anyone who served in Iraq will read this book with a growing sense of frustration at further confirmation of how unprepared and inexperienced the American post-war effort seems to have been (pace American readers - the British Basile has yet to put pen to paper). The idea that someone with Basile's limited background could be dropped into the complex and violent maelstrom that was and remains Iraq is utterly boggling and is, without meaning to be, the most overwhelming concept that the reader takes away. Basile himself seems to be of the view that the Allies were thwarted by the lack of a decent media plan without even attempting to consider that Coalition forces may actually have been trying to polish a turd, hopelessly hampered by the lack of an effective COIN doctrine and hamstrung by unforgiving legal and political constraints.

Essentially 'Tough Sell' is what journalists refer to as an 'I' story and is interesting on that basis if one can bear the author's stilted and partisan style. Basile's willingness to put himself in harm's way is something to be respected, as is the effort to made to put his time in Iraq on record but this is not one of the great autobiographies and it offers little in the way of guidance as to how to avoid an Iraq-like shambles in the future.

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