Emma Sky on Becoming Emma Sky

Focus Interview: Part 1

Emma Sky, author and Middle East expert, discusses how she, a "female, civilian, British pacifist," became the chief advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq.

This interview has been edited and condensed, a rush transcript is below. 

Gideon Rose:  Tell me a little bit about you how you got to be such a crucial player in the Iraq story, and why that's actually somewhat an unexpected outcome?

Emma Sky:  Well, when I was a student, an undergrad at Oxford, it was the first Gulf War, and I was very pacifist.  I was on all the anti-war demonstration and I signed up to be a human shield.  Never got deployed, but I was signed up to go.  When it came to the second war in 2003, I thought, "Okay, I'm very much against this war, but I've got to find the way to go out to Iraq to apologize to Iraqis for the war, and let them know that most people in Europe did not support this war."

The British government sent out an email requesting volunteers to go out to Iraq to administer the country for three months before we handed the country back to the Iraqis.  I put my hand up and I volunteered to go.

Gideon Rose:  How does a female civilian British pacifist end up becoming the chief adviser to the US military in Iraq?

Emma Sky:  Well, it is sort very circuitous way in which I arrived.  I'm wondering on the country -- wonder what my job should be.  I end up in the province of Kirkuk, and I'm told, "You are now ambassador of premise representative, you're the coalition representative to the province."  Colonial administrator -- I'm the last person to be a colonial administrator.  I've come here to apologize.  It was only supposed to be three months.

Emma Sky: In my first week in this job, insurgents come to the front door of my house, blow up the house with me in it.  I was very fortunate to survive that.

Gideon Rose:  Did you get hurt?

Emma Sky:  Alhamdulillah, I didn’t get hurt.  I was very lucky, and the whole house sort of -- I got pretty badly hurt, but I was fortunate, but I needed somewhere to live.  I went to the brigade commander who's an American commander, the 173rd airborne brigade, and said, "Look," -- slightly, bit embarrassed here -- "House has got some problems.  Have you got anywhere I can stay?"  He was like, "We're going to hunt these people down."  I was like, “No, you are not."  I said, “I’m just looking for a bed.  I’m not looking for people to have death warrants put out for them."  I turned up …

Gideon Rose:  He wanted to take revenge for what they did to you?

Emma Sky:  I turned up the next day with my laptop in which I got the 4th Geneva Convention, and read it to him line by line and said, "If I find you violating any of these principles, I would take you to the hague [ph]," not knowing that the Americans didn't come under international law, and you couldn’t take them to the hague.  I think for him, he was like, "Hey," -- female feisty British accent.  This is kind of unusual, and he thought he was leaving and I was to replace him, the civilians coming in …

Gideon Rose:  That's right because the assumption was that we would go away in a few months leaving it to the next people to pick on, who would be you and your [inaudible] 0:21:28 …

Emma Sky:  Yes, the civilians.  He said, "Look, we're going to do this.  Left seat, right seat thing," -- or right seat, left seat, depending where you're from, "and you are going to take over."  I thought, "Okay, so I've got to tolerate this man for a few weeks before he goes."  Well, he never did go, and his boss was General Odierno.  General Odierno used to come for meetings and he got all his military guys there and this woman.  She was like, "Stop asking me questions," and I thought … "

Gideon Rose:  He is also a big bald hulky -- this is a very different physical specimen as well.

Emma Sky:  Yes, well he is like a different species.  I've never seen anybody that huge.  I mean, he is absolutely massive.  I mean, first of all -- I mean, you look at him and you think, "He doesn’t look that bright," when you’ve look at him, and he kept asking all these questions.  I was like, "Okay, there's a lot more to this person.  He is very intellectually curious."  More questions, more questions, more questions, and I realized, he had not prepared to come to this province, to administer this province.  All he had been prepared for was the war.  That's how I met him.  A few years later, when he was nominated to be the Operational Commander for the surge, I get this email from him out of the blue, "Will you come and be my political adviser?  And I don't need -- just got out of Afghanistan.  I did a tour there."  And I thought, "Really?"  I didn’t respond for a couple of days, and I was getting all these emails from military guys, they'd found my house in London on Google Earth, so they pictures with rockets pointing at it, you've got to respond to General Odierno.  I said, "Okay, I'll come out for three months," and that three months lasted about four years.

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