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A U.S. Army soldier stands guard in front of a Shiite protest against the United States on April 22, 2003
A U.S. Army soldier stands guard in front of a Shiite protest against the United States on April 22, 2003 (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

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Reviewed by Gideon Rose
Sunday, October 9, 2005

THE ASSASSINS' GATE: America in Iraq

By George Packer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 467 pp. $26

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance: The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with her famous five stages of grief to describe how patients react to the discovery that they are terminally ill, but these phases apply to other traumas too. With regard to the debacle playing out in Iraq, for example, the White House and its die-hard supporters are still in denial, while most of their Democratic critics are stuck at anger. Policy wonks have moved on to the bargaining phase, debating how much of the original mission to sacrifice in return for a way out. Depression is likely to set in as the full extent of the calamity becomes clear; acceptance is a long way off.

How did this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer's masterful new The Assassins' Gate .

In the run-up to the 2003 war, three rationales were offered for the invasion: fear of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, links between Iraq and terrorism, and a desire to bring liberal democracy to Iraq and the Middle East at large. The first was essentially an honest mistake; almost all knowledgeable observers thought Iraq was hiding prohibited weapons programs, although they disagreed about how to handle the problem and the fears proved overblown. The second was essentially a dishonest one; there were never any good reasons to think Iraq was connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or likely to work closely with al Qaeda. The third rationale, meanwhile, was a high-stakes gamble. Saddam Hussein's tyranny was just as brutal as the Bush administration charged, and the Middle East's general economic, social and political stagnation had indeed helped fuel the rise of violent Islamist extremism. Yet few experts thought it would be possible to transform Iraq's domestic structures quickly or easily, to say nothing of sparking a regional democratic revolution.

In this book, Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, tells the story of this third rationale -- how it emerged, how the Bush administration tried to implement it and how things turned out on the ground. The United States would not have gone to war just to spread democracy in the Middle East (as even the war's intellectual architect, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, acknowledged), but the case for democratization played an important role in buttressing the other two arguments and was the most exciting aspect of the endeavor for neoconservatives and liberals alike. When WMD stockpiles failed to materialize, moreover, the quest for democracy became the prime rationale for ongoing operations, gaining greater significance after the fact than it had beforehand. All this makes Packer's volume important and timely.

The book is framed by the story of Kanan Makiya, an idealistic Iraqi exile whose writings had exposed the evil of Saddam Hussein's republic of fear and who had come to see American power as Iraq's only hope for a better future. Desperate to do "the right thing [even if it was] being done by the wrong people," Makiya threw in his lot with some slippery fellow exiles and various American factions all pursuing their own agendas. He was ultimately ushered into the Oval Office to tell President Bush that a grateful Iraqi public "will greet the troops with sweets and flowers."

A hawkish liberal himself, Packer was torn between his sympathy for Makiya's goals and his misgivings about whether they were likely to be achieved. "I would run down the many compelling reasons why a war would be unwise, only to find at the end that Saddam was still in power, tormenting his people and defying the world," he writes. "The administration's war was not my war -- it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances -- but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way." Eventually, crossing his fingers and deciding that Saddam Hussein had to be considered the greater evil, he went along for the ride (as did I).

Packer's sketch of the prewar debates is subtle, sharp and poignant. His book truly picks up, however, once the wheels of history have been set in motion. Writing with barely suppressed fury and continued bafflement, he describes how the great and noble enterprise he supported is inexplicably handed over to those least qualified to make it work: "No one at the top level of the administration was less interested in the future of Iraq than Donald Rumsfeld. Yet he would demand and receive control over the postwar, and he would entrust it to his more ideologically fervent aides, in whom he placed the same incurious confidence that the president placed in Rumsfeld."

The result -- depressingly familiar by now from the writings of James Fallows, Larry Diamond and others, including Packer himself -- has been one of the worst self-inflicted wounds in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The military leadership under Gen. Tommy Franks abdicated any responsibility for seeing the war through to completion; the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and in the vice president's office kept their own mysterious counsel while blocking others from doing anything useful; a feckless president surrounded by sycophants and ideologues seemed barely to understand what was going on around him.

So the Baathist regime falls quickly, Americans occupy Baghdad, everybody holds their breath to see what will happen next, and the answer is -- nothing. Thuggish Iraqis grow bolder as crime goes unpunished; decent Iraqis grow despondent as the occupying troops stand down and let chaos unfold. American occupation officials, Packer writes, eventually "did a rough calculation of the economic cost of the looting in those early weeks. The figure they came up with was $12 billion, canceling out the projected revenues of Iraq for the first year after the war. The gutted buildings, the lost equipment, the destroyed records, the damaged infrastructure, would continue to haunt almost every aspect of the reconstruction. But the physical damage was less catastrophic than those effects that couldn't be quantified. Iraqis' first experience of freedom was chaos and violence; the arrival of the Americans brought an end to the certainty of political terror and at the same time unleashed new, less certain fears." Or as Rumsfeld put it, "stuff happens."

Soon even Washington realized that things were not going well, and the first postwar team was abruptly sent packing. As Jay Garner and his hapless Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance were replaced by L. Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority, a U.S. official tells Packer, the American approach shifted from "arrogance" to "hubris": "The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, underresourced, skim off the top layer of leadership, take control of a functioning state, and be out by six weeks and get the oil funds to pay for it. We all know for a variety of reasons that didn't work. So then you switch over to the hubris phase . . . we'll attack it with everything we have, we'll throw the many billion dollars at it, and to make Iraq safe for the future we have to do a root-and-branch transformation of the country in our own image."

That didn't work either, in part because ill-considered early decisions to pursue radical de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi army led many in the country's Sunni minority to oppose the occupation. Eventually the Bush administration shifted course again, transferring power to an Iraqi interim government and scheduling nationwide elections. In one sense, those elections, held this past January, were a triumph, with 8 million Iraqis braving insurgent attacks to take part in an extraordinary display of democratic procedure and confidence in a self-determined future. But in another sense, they were a warning sign; Sunnis generally boycotted the vote, fearing that they would lose the privileged perch they'd enjoyed under the old dictatorship to the country's newly empowered Shiite majority, and the country stepped closer to open communal conflict.

Packer relates all this clearly and briskly, painting moving portraits of both Iraqis and Americans while skillfully guiding the reader through the intricacies of colonial administration, Iraqi ethnic politics and Beltway skullduggery. His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet. At the end, he revisits Kanan Makiya, chastened by his brush with actual Iraqi politics and now withdrawn from the fray, trying to save a few fragments from the ruins.

Ultimately, Packer refuses to tie the threads of his analysis together in a tidy bundle and settle accounts. He closes by stating the big questions about Iraq's transformation -- "Would it succeed? How could it have been done better? If it couldn't be done right, should it have been done at all?" -- but leaves the answers to history and the reader's own judgment. Given the sorry tale he has just told, this seems something of a cop-out. But it is also not entirely unreasonable, for although events in Iraq have now largely passed out of Washington's control, there is still a remote possibility that the worst outcomes -- full-scale civil war or a completely failed state -- might be kept at bay, leaving the ending of one of the cruelest tyrannies in modern history as an accomplishment worth savoring.

It is not too soon, however, to return a judgment on those at the helm who took a difficult job and made it infinitely more so, dramatically undermining America's regional and global position in the process. They were "careless people," as Fitzgerald said of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." That, if nothing else, can stand as a lesson for future tender souls contemplating the possible benefits of liberal imperialism and mulling attempts to do the right thing with the wrong partners. ยท

Gideon Rose is managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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