Here’s a charitable view of the Iraq War:
Al Qaeda’s attack on Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrated to the leadership of the United States the horrifying vulnerability of the country to terrorist assault. While Al Qaeda was the immediate culprit, rogue states (North Korea, Iran, Iraq)—who could theoretically supply Al Qaeda with weapons that would make 9/11 seem like a moped accident—were seen as a more pressing threat. By attacking one rogue state (if not the most dangerous, then the least able to resist an American invasion), the Bush administration struck at what it considered the real problem: the loss of American power and prestige. Moreover, a liberated Iraq would stand as a beacon of representative government in a region where one person, one vote is still, largely, a curiosity.
If one could wave a wand and make it so, most people would applaud. Unfortunately for the Bush administration, no such wand existed, or exists.
Here’s an uncharitable view of the Iraq War:
The Bush administration used a genuine national tragedy to mobilize itself toward a hypothetically salutary but dismayingly complicated endeavor—the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—that the Republican Party’s theoretical wing had been angling to essay for close to a decade. Because this endeavor had such a tenuous connection to the events of 9/11, and because those most interested in the undertaking were so bored by its myriad complications, the invasion not only failed to counter the jihadist network but energized it, not only failed to liberate Iraq but Balkanized it, not only failed to bring to justice the perpetrators of 9/11 but valorized them, not only neglected to properly avenge the thousands dead in lower Manhattan but killed at least 1,000 score equally innocent people—and in the process escorted the United States to the brink of something resembling bankruptcy, and also seriously strained alliances that had been welded tight for five decades.
The great strength of George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate is that it gives a fair hearing to both views. Free of cant—but not, crucially, of anger—Mr. Packer has written an account of the Iraq War that will stand alongside such narrative histories as A Bright Shining Lie, Fire in the Lake and Hell in a Very Small Place. As a meditation on the limits of American power, it’s sobering. As a pocket history of Iraq and the United States’ tangled history, it’s indispensable. As an examination of the collision between arrogance and good intentions, it could scarcely be improved upon. It’s also a welcome answer to the compelling but ultimately empty stares through the rifle scope offered by such recent combat accounts as Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and John Crawford’s best-selling The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. In short, The Assassins’ Gate is a book every American needs to read.
After a shattering prologue, wherein a deranged Iraqi schoolteacher tells Mr. Packer that “my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein,” the author guides the reader through the recent history of intellectual conservatism.
Long helmed by Kissingerian “realists” who chortled at the idea of humanitarian intervention, the Republican Party saw some of its most influential thinkers get body-snatched by the neoconservative notion of remaking the world by fiat. Iraqi regime change was the infecting agent, and 9/11 marked the appearance of its direst symptoms. With stunning clarity and evenhandedness, Mr. Packer tracks the evolution of the regime-change virus, including its occasional point mutations, throughout the 1990’s. By revealing the contents of the obscure—obscure, that is, to the general public—policy papers that the partisans of regime change feverishly scrivened during the Clinton years, Mr. Packer definitively establishes that this process was not a conspiracy, but rather a gradual evolution made up of tiny events upon which a surplus of fate accumulated. In 1998, for instance, at the low ebb of his Presidential power, Bill Clinton was essentially blackmailed into signing the Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change official American policy.
To read The Assassins’ Gate with a pen in hand is to transform its pages’ blank white margins into forests of exclamation points. For instance, when told by a Pentagon official during the Gulf War that the United States “could change the [Iraqi] government and put in a democracy,” then–Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney dourly said no, the Saudis would object. For instance, at President Bush’s very first national-security meeting in January 2001, the removal of Saddam Hussein was suggested. For instance, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s assistants took this note—a haiku of hubris—while his boss held forth on the afternoon of Sept. 11: “best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” For instance, Larry Di Rita, Mr. Rumsfeld’s handpicked Pentagon spokesman, said shortly after the invasion, “We don’t owe the people of Iraq anything. We’re giving them their freedom. That’s enough.” For instance, because the first U.S. officials from the “skeletal, disorganized, impecunious” Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance had no resources to speak of, one of them used an old Lonely Planet guidebook to come up with a list of buildings that needed to be protected post-invasion, and managed to name the Central Bank and the National Museum as the first and second priority.
The rest, of course, is either history or the nightmare from which we cannot awake.
Despite Mr. Packer’s fairness, his book is not without villains. After closing The Assassins’ Gate, one is sincerely surprised to learn that Donald Rumsfeld is not incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth. But not even Mr. Rumsfeld comes off as badly as his adjutant Douglas Feith, once called by no less than General Tommy Franks “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth.” Mr. Feith’s ruthlessly Leninist approach to handling the postwar planning (working in Masonic secrecy, blackballing reconstruction experts who were not as ideologically committed as Mr. Feith would have preferred) is justifiably pilloried. Mr. Packer’s portrait of Condoleezza Rice, on the other hand, is made up of equal parts villainy and victimhood. She’s all but paralyzed by disputes between the State Department and the Pentagon: “A humanitarian army is going to follow our army into Iraq, right?” Mr. Bush asked her in January 2003. “Right, Rice affirmed, but she glanced down in a way that suggested she knew how inadequate the answer was.”
Some of what Mr. Packer reveals is already in wide circulation, but nowhere has the timeline been so compellingly established or the personalities so fascinatingly drawn. He performs a great service (one wonders if it’s not due to his fiction-writing DNA, for he’s also an excellent, if earnest, novelist): He illustrates the power of human agency and shows how determinative personality can be amid huge historical events. As someone tells him, “Some people can make a mistake and recalibrate, others can’t. On both sides. So much of this is up to the wisdom of people, their prudence, their judgment.” Those who took the United States to war had vision, the courage of their convictions and an unhesitating willingness to use American power for what they felt was a just cause. What they did not have, as Mr. Packer demonstrates, was self-skepticism, humility, an interest in detail or any concern for what might happen if their plans failed.
There are two tragic heroes in this book, both of whom emerge from its final pages with dented armor and bent swords. The first is Paul Wolfowitz, “the leading intellect of the post-September 11 policy” and the No. 2 decision-maker in Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. A believer in what Mr. Packer calls “midcentury liberalism,” Mr. Wolfowitz attached himself to conservative causes largely because liberals were too skittish about the idea of using American power on behalf of democracy. Alone among his colleagues in the Bush White House, Mr. Wolfowitz supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and even before the Iraq War, he displayed some awareness of regime change’s challenges. By the end of his long journey, we find him debating whether some dead civilians might not have had it coming. Due, in part, to the depth of his convictions, Mr. Wolfowitz comes to base his views not on reality but the rightness of his position. This is a reliable turn of the American mind, one Churchill liked to call “the great American illusion” and what Graham Greene characterized in The Quiet American as “a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
The other tragic hero is the Iraqi dissident scholar Kanan Makiya, whose Republic of Fear (1989) led some to see him as Iraq’s answer to Solzhenitsyn. A chance encounter, years ago, in Cambridge, Mass., between Mr. Packer and this gentle, cloud-dwelling man became Mr. Packer’s entry into thinking about Iraq. Mr. Makiya’s firm conviction that toppling Saddam Hussein was a moral necessity, and his belief in the traditional openness and secular nature of Iraqi culture, were part of what made Mr. Packer initially, and reluctantly, support the war. Used by the Bush administration (this man, who had not set foot in Iraq since 1968, was the source of Dick Cheney’s now-infamous claim that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators), Mr. Makiya was essentially shattered by his return to his homeland. His attempts to found a museum detailing the enormity of Baathism’s crimes were regarded coldly by most Iraqis, and his memories of secular, miniskirt-wearing Iraq were not brought back to life. Mr. Packer, who claims to—and clearly does—love Mr. Makiya, achieves the truly tragic when he writes of his friend: “Iraqis, it turned out, were not who he had thought they were. They were not Kanan Makiya.”
The Assassins’ Gate is equally revelatory on the exilic Iraqi community, who in a London hotel in 2002 were arguing over the same issues that Iraq at large is still arguing over today. President Bush, for his part, didn’t heed the wisest of these exiles, who told him, in the Oval Office, “If you don’t win their hearts at the start, if they don’t get benefits, after two months you could see Mogadishu in Baghdad.”
Mr. Packer is nothing short of spellbinding in his account of everyday Iraqis, one of whom told Mr. Packer that he did not believe America had come to steal Iraq’s land. (Unfortunately, that man was a patient in the Ibn Rushd Teaching Psychiatric Hospital.) Over and over, through Mr. Packer, we meet sane, dignified Iraqis who seem exemplars of rationality—until they begin disquisitions on Jewish vampires sucking the world’s blood. There are, one is sadly left to conclude, very few democrats in this world. “In Iraq,” Mr. Packer writes, “there was nothing unusual about a doctor who loved Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, advocated the public whipping of prostitutes, and believed that executed homosexuals got what they deserved.”
Those Iraqi democrats who do exist—and Mr. Packer appears to have spoken to both of them—are perhaps the book’s most heartbreaking figures: “The problem all along was that the strongest people in Iraq were the extremists with guns and militias. The open-minded Iraqis were the weakest.” Many of the most religiously fanatical Sunni elements in Iraqi society, Mr. Packer is told, simply swapped godheads: “They speak in the name of God. Before, they spoke in the name of Saddam.” In short, the simple and in many cases unspeakable reality of the Iraqi people falls among the many contingencies U.S. war planners never adequately measured or anticipated.
Mr. Packer has an unerring talent for finding the right people, getting the right quote, being in the right place and zeroing in on the right story. At least one anecdote from the book can be accurately called delightful: During a Fulbright interview, a young Iraqi told his American interlocutors that he viewed the United States as occupiers, not liberators—and was then astonished when he received his Fulbright anyway. Ultimately, Mr. Packer turns his vision stateside and finds a father shattered by the loss of his soldier son. That chapter was excerpted in The New Yorker and disgracefully attacked by Christopher Hitchens in Slate—but to my mind, Mr. Packer’s meditation on the justness of war is as powerful as anything in the literature of aftermath.
Near the end of The Assassins’ Gate, Mr. Packer writes, “I asked Richard Perle whether the top Bush officials ever suffered doubts about Iraq. ‘We all have doubts all the time,’ Perle said. ‘We don’t express them, certainly not in a public debate. That would be fatal.’” A kindred fear of doctrinal error explains why those who initially opposed the war have such a hard time justifying their position on it today. It also explains why John Kerry seemed to engage in such damaging antinomy during the Presidential debates—he excoriated the motives behind the war but, when pressed, said it was absolutely vital that the United States triumph.
This has been one of Mr. Bush’s singular accomplishments: By going forward on such dubious evidence, presiding over such dizzying incompetence and then watching the inaccurate reasons for the war magically become real, he has successfully failed upward to validate a flawed vision. While it does seem that a few Americans’ sense of personal vindication is strong enough to wish failure upon Iraq and, by extension, the Bush administration, most surely do not. Despite being given more loyalty longer with less justification than any administration in recent memory, public support for the war is clearly waning. The reason for this is simple: When things are not going well, when our leaders not only deny that fact but cast aspersions on the patriotism of those who state the obvious, and when our leaders change their stated reasons for the war as it suits them, our faith in those leaders naturally suffers.
That Americans live in a political climate in which the leaders of government cannot admit error, or plead for common sacrifice, is worse than distressing. It’s disgusting.
It would be unwise to end a review of such a fine book with anything but the author’s words. George Packer, who also believes in a democratic Iraq and grieves all the more for it, writes, “Those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that sometimes amounted to criminal negligence …. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to figure.”
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia and God Lives in St. Petersburg, both from Pantheon.