Book World Live

George Packer
Author, "The Assasins' Gate"
Tuesday, October 11, 2005; 3:00 PM

George Packer is the author of "The Assasins' Gate," a new work examining the reasons for the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and its aftermath. His book was reviewed in the Oct. 9 issue of Book World .

Packer was online Tuesday, Oct. 11 to talk about his book and the war in Iraq.

Packer is a staff writer at the New Yorker.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Herndon, Va.: I can understand the dilemma faced by those who understood that Saddam had do be deposed, not just disarmed, but am I too naive to believe that the end cannot justify the means? Why was March '03 necessary? Could there have been another way? I do not believe that the administration followed it's moral compass. I have two questions. Does the USA have the right to invade another country based solely on it's fear that this other country may at some point in time in the future have the capability to inflict harm on the USA? (IF so, the future of the world is in doubt as any country can claim that right.) Second, knowing that the president and VP lied about the nuclear threat posed by Saddam ( WP, Sunday 8/10/03, as I recall) and most likely deliberately overstated the biological and chemical threat, (we could will learn this if the Dems win back the Senate in '06) is it justifiable to commit a crime to catch a criminal? The bottom line is, we did not fight this war in defense of our country, we fought it in defense of a theory- call it the neocon theory.

George Packer: You're asking the hardest questions. Could there have been another way? It depends on what the goal is. To disarm Saddam? The inspections were a flawed but effective means. But their success would have preserved Saddam in power, tyrannizing his people and destabilizing an extremely volatile region (his sons did not make appealing heirs). War was the only way I know of to depose Saddam. We tried the others and they all failed.

The grounds the administration gave for war were essentially preventive--to eliminate a potential threat. These grounds were always suspect, because the threat was never imminent, and they turned out to be wrong. Did the ends justify the means? The U.S. paid a terrible price in its international standing for the administration's exaggerations and deceptions--and, I would add, even more for its unwillingness to admit error. But I don't think that events since April 9, 2003 were born of original sin and doomed to fail. The theme of my book is the human failings that brought us to this pass.


Baltimore, Md.: As a Democrat and liberal hawk, I recall being uncomfortable about supporting the President's call for war because of my general belief that whenever faced with the choice between telling the truth and telling less than the truth, the Administration almost always chose the latter. And yet, I at least believed at the time that they were competent; Afghanistan had gone pretty well. The arguments made by the liberal hawks and my belief in the Administration's competence were enough for me at the time. Were there signs, was there something that we could have seen then to suggest that the Administration was not even competent enough to prosecute this war correctly. Or was the evidence of its general dishonesty a sufficient indicator?

George Packer: I found myself in exactly your position. And it's frustrating to have spent the two and a half years since the invasion discovering the scale of the administration's fecklessness in Iraq. Some of it I should have known in advance; much of it was hidden from view at the time. I looked at Afghanistan, as you did, and even more, at the seriousness, the huge importance, of the prospect of war in Iraq, and imagined that they would spare no effort. One of the real riddles of this war is why the administration didn't take it more seriously.


Chevy Chase, Md.: If you had to rate the rationale behind the neocons push to war, what number would you assign to the Israel factor. Actually, not so much Israel but the Likud party. (I happen to think that Feith, Perle, Libby, Krauthammer and others like them are not so much pro-Israel as pro-Likud and pro-retaining the West Bank). Would we have had this war if Iraq was, say, a continent away from Israel. I'm Jewish and pro-Israel, by the way. But I hate this war and find that the same people who pushed this war on us tend to thwart Israel's chances of reaching peace with the Palestinians.

George Packer: I think the Israel theory is overblown. For a few officials and neo-conservative thinkers, including Feith and Perle (whom you name), and David Wurmser, who is less well-known, I think that Israel was central. Their writings make this clear. But the more important figures, such as Wolfowitz and Cheney, had other agendas.

That said, it's no accident that Israel is hundreds rather than thousands of miles away from the war in Iraq. The turbulence in the Middle East, the growth of extreme ideologies there, the events of September 11, and the invasion of Iraq are interconnected. Israel is not the original cause, but it is an aggravating factor.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Packer--I have not read your new book yet, but I read every word of your New Yorker reporting on the Iraq war. I think your November 2003 "War after the War" report was truly outstanding, probably one of the very best articles regarding the war. It was a disturbing piece that in the end proved very prescient. Your recent article regarding the father of a soldier killed in the war was not as satisfying to me. It didn't have the same authenticity as your Iraq-based reporting. It seemed like you wanted to cover the "homefront" for purposes of rounding out your book.

What's next for you? Will you return to Iraq? Have you selected a new topic?

Thanks very much

George Packer: Thanks for reading me with such attentiveness. I recently shifted gears and went to Lagos, Nigeria for the New Yorker. It has a fearsome reputation, but it proved a reporter's paradise after Baghdad. I am considering another trip to Iraq, with misgivings. I can't be done with this story yet.


Rockville, Md: I appreciate a well doccumented book on a subject that has many opinions and fewer facts. I am ready to change my views on the war, but I do have one question. When I was in Vietnam, the US did a pretty good job on supporting the infrasturcture and building facilities for just about everything we needed. I don't care who was in charge of what or how interested they may have been, that should be a basic part of the package. The shipments of aid shold have been wiating for the first combat was completed.

Why not in Iraq? It is like saying we went in with a week of ammunition and expected to find the rest in local stores.

George Packer: You're absolutely right, and you've highlighted an instance in which Vietnam furnished a positive model. By comparison, the postwar planning for Iraq, and the delivery of services and aid, were utterly inadequate. The only mitigating explanation is that Iraq, after decades of Saddam, war, and sanctions, was in even worse shape than most experts knew. An official of the U.S. Agency for International Development told me that if Iraq were a used car, Saddam unloaded it at just the right moment. Beyond this, the failure to plan and provide was a case of gross negligence on the part of the administration. We've been paying the price ever since. The story of this aspect of the war can be found in Chapter 4 of my book.


Silver Spring, Md.: George,

I was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, posted not far from where you once lived.

I was wondering if your time with the Peace Corps had an effect on your perspective with regard to whether or not its feasible to "democratize" another society.

My feeling is that the creators of this war may not have spent much time in other countries, much less developing countries, and thus are quick to think that democracy is feasible in any nation, regardless of the culture.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Sincerely, George W.

George Packer: That's a great question, very close to my heart. I learned two things from my years in Togo, back in my early twenties: that there's terrible suffering in the world, and that good intentions are not enough to end it. Much of my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has been about the conflict between those two insights. A corollary is that human rights and a decent life are universal goods, but cultures and people differ greatly. How do you reconcile the desire to end tyranny, genocide, and suffering with the knowledge that there are bound to be unintended consequences? I haven't answered this question to my own satisfaction, but it's been on my mind a lot lately.

I should add that you are right to say that the architects of the war have had remarkably insular careers. Other than Paul Wolfowitz, who served as ambassador to Indonesia in the eighties, none of them has any foreign experience, nor, as we all know, any combat experience.


Takoma Park, Md.: When discussing "what went wrong", much has been made of the shortcomings of today's mainstream media -- complacent dependence on single major sources such as the Pentagon, corporate concentration of the media, and flat-out reluctance to report thoroughly on bad news that doesn't sell well.

To what extent do you hold our major media outlets responsible for failing to question and challenge our leadership, investigate facts, and inform the American public?

George Packer: The media did very poorly in the months before the invasion. They--we--were either easily co-opted by anonymous sources within the administration, or unable to come to independent judgments using other sources. This was true above all about weapons of mass destruction. On post-invasion scenarios there was better work, but it lacked the solidity of facts--it was, by definition, speculative. Bad news, though, does sell well; I don't think this was the reason. You came closer with your first suggestion--too much dependence on insiders with agendas, and also perhaps an unwillingness to take on the administration in a big way in the year or year and a half after September 11, 2001.


Washington DC: Mr. Packer,

It sounds like a great book; I look forward to reading it, though sorry it couldn't be a happier story.

What do you think of a rationale I hear a lot: "it's better to fight them there then here."

It makes it sound like we're fighting and killing the terrorists that want to attack the USA, rather than Iraqis that have some agenda for Iraq.

To me the statement is at best misleading, if not more deceit. Am I incorrect?

George Packer: I agree. It's a faulty analysis, in my view. There isn't a finite number of "them," nor are they hemmed in by the borders of Iraq. However, I don't agree that they have an agenda only for Iraq. The foreign fighters, who are responsible for the most spectacular violence, see themselves as fighting a worldwide jihad. Some of them have already returned to their home countries, to the alarm of their governments--including European ones. Iraq has become a training ground, as Afghanistan was. At the same time, it's interesting that the sheer brutality of the insurgents in Iraq is creating splits in the jihad movement. In some ways Iraq has become the stage rather than the subject of this larger war; unfortunately, Iraqis are the biggest losers.


Atlanta, Ga: I'm looking forward to reading your book. Leaving aside the president, Rumsfeld and the other American officials responsible for the Iraq situation appear to be highly intelligent and, many of them, experienced people. In light of that, how do you explain the mistakes that have characterized the debacle almost from the beginning? Are there lessons to be drawn from what's happened? Thanks.

George Packer: As David Halberstam wrote of the architects of the Vietnam War in "The Best and the Brightest," they were brilliant and they were fools. They regarded dissent and opposition with contempt. They thought that winning political and policy battles in Washington was at least as important as what was happening on the ground. At the top was a president with great faith in his own instincts and in the human desire for freedom, and with utter incuriosity about the details of the situation in Iraq. Those surrounding him who had concerns were unwilling or unable to make themselves truly heard. It's a very old human story of hubris--a tragedy, in every sense.


Atlanta, Ga: Colin Powell had the stature and, I would have assumed, the judgment, to influence events in Iraq for the better. Why do you believe that didn't that happen?

George Packer: The president didn't listen to him, and Powell didn't push it. By the time the State Dept. began to take over responsibility for Iraq, the Rubicon had been crossed. At the end of my book I describe Powell's final conversation with the president, this past January. He finally said certain things that he had kept himself from saying all along. He was the good soldier.


Lyme, Conn..: Has it even been concluded whether or not we could have prevented Iraq's initial invasion of Kuwait? There have been articles written that stated that Saddam Hussein informed the American Ambassador to Iraq of his plans for the invasion and that our government responded that we would not interfere. Do you believe there is truth to that, and, if it is true, do you think we deceived Saddam Hussein into invading so we could then use that as grounds to attack him, or do you think it was a change of policy after the attack that we then felt a need to defend Kuwait?

George Packer: I only know what you do: that the administration of George H.W. Bush signaled to Saddam that it regarded his dispute with Kuwait as a matter outside American interests. It's a long way from that to a deliberate effort to deceive him in order to go to war, though. In general, my reporting on Iraq has taught me that ad-hoc improvisation, lack of imagination, and incompetence are far stronger characteristics of the U.S. government than Machiavellian conspiracy.


Fargo, N.D.: Hello George, It seems that one of the most pressing conundrums we face in Iraq is the growing uncertainty over the appropriate level of continued U.S. military involvement. There's a growing sentiment that a heavy military presence is more provocation than solution, vs. fears that pulling back would be to ensure Iraq becomes a failed state. How do we salvage this mess? I'm looking forward to reading your book, having enjoyed and admired your work in The New Yorker.

-- Pat Springer (former student)

George Packer: Hi Pat. Thanks for writing. We are indeed in a jam--somewhat like Jefferson's description of slavery: we have the tiger by the ears and we're afraid to hold on or let go. My worry is that the answers will be determined more by domestic political factors here in the U.S. than by the situation in Iraq. I continue to believe that several hundred thousand troops could have made an enormous difference in 2003 and 2004. It's probably too late for that--as you say, our presence has become too provocative, there's been too much friction, with not even benefits for the Iraqis in return. And our armed forces lack the capacity to sustain high levels. But in my view a rapid withdrawal, or a withdrawal pegged to artificial milestones such as Iraqi and American elections, could make matters far worse. Iraq still has a long way to fall, and although we can't lift it up ourselves, we are acting as a kind of safety net.


Anonymous: Is your new book,"The Assasins'Gate", based on the the 20,000 word peice you wrote in the New Yorker? "War after the War"

George Packer: Yes, that piece gave me the original idea for the book. I cannibalized my New Yorker reporting, put it in new form, and added quite a bit of new material. The book takes the reader from the debates over Iraq since the first Gulf War through the lead-up to the invasion and the events in Iraq since March 2003.


Falls Church, Va.: Has the U. S. Army had any success in using spies (e.g., covert Shiites or Kurds?) or other intelligence to penetrate the Sunni insurgency networks in Iraq so as to wipe them out? If the insurgency is as large as it seems, why can't we penetrate it better by paying local Iraquis for intelligence. Over time, if not right away, this should help us.

Also, what techniques used in fighting previous guerilla wars might usefully be applied in Iraq? We need to get tougher on these insurgent terrorists.

Thank you.

George Packer: That's a good question, and I'm not equipped to answer it, except to say that our intelligence has been so slow in developing that, if we have recruited a network of spies (as opposed to informers, who show up at the gates of U.S. bases every day), we're getting very little for their work.

One lesson of previous guerrilla wars is that getting tough on insurgents is seldom the way to win. This is where hearts and minds come in. Our strategy from the beginning should have put the focus on Iraqi civilians caught in the middle--on protecting them, training their security forces, and helping them to build a responsive government to which they were willing to risk giving their allegiance. The insurgents understood far better than we that this was the heart of the war. We've now adopted something like this as a counterinsurgency strategy, but we're two precious years late.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Please consider either of the following questions:

Is it legitimate to claim that there was less international terrorism trafficking in and through Iraq prior to the U.S.-led regime change ?

What would be the economic impact on the U.S. and Britain if Iraq was permitted to segregate itself into 3 or 4 smaller countries defined by the majority ethic/religous groups(ie: Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, etc.) ?

Has any group of intellectual merit forecasted the 10 to 20 year cost to U.S. taxpayers in the form of Veterans Affairs medical, behavioral, and rehabilitation demands from those armed forces serving in-country and/or in support roles in the Afghanistan-Iraq region ? What do they project ?

George Packer: The answer to your first question is yes. To the second, that scenario implies, to my mind, a very bloody civil war that would be bound to involve the regional powers. This would destabilize an already volatile region, with grim implications for the whole world. As for the third, I'm not aware of any such study. Suffice to say we'll be living with the consequences of this war for a very long time.


Roanoke, Va: Hi, Mr. Packer. I admire your work in The New Yorker. I am in an unusual disposition. I am both a Democrat and a Turkish-American. I have been against the War in Iraq for many reasons. My late uncle was a Turkish diplomat in Baghdad during the sixties, and from what I gathered it was as much of a mess then as it was under Saddam. But, my main concern and there have been incidents to suggest my fears are valid, is that Kurdish separatists will resurface in Turkey. Do you agree with my concern that Iraqi Kurds will want to join their fellow Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria to form a greater Kurdistan and abadon their promise to work in a unified Iraq?

George Packer: Iraq was indeed tumultuous and violent throughout the sixties. It was not, though, a Stalinist mini-state ruled by a regime that required endless war to keep itself in power. I don't know the answer to your question about Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Iraqi Kurds long for independence from Baghdad; in my three trips to the north I never heard them talking about greater Kurdistan or their brothers in the PKK. They would have enough on their hands, an isolated and fledgling country, without fighting wars with Syria, Turkey, and Iran. By the way, Ankara has recently turned down the volume on its warnings to the Kurds. Perhaps Turkey is beginning to realize that it could live with an autonomous Kurdistan on its southeastern border.


Brooklyn, NY: I just picked the book yesterday so I haven't read more than the introduction, so the book may address this.

We heard before the war, the Iraqis would greet us with sweets and flowers, that the occupation would be short and cheap, that Iraq could pay for the reconstruction, etc. Was there any serious discussion among the claque pushing for war that a war might make everything worse? How seriously did they address that issue? Did they simply shove it aside? When did you start to think that we were being decieved?

When did you realize the optimistic scenarios that were sold to us were melting away?

We don't know the full outcome yet, but is there any doubt for the average Iraqi, October 2005 is much worse than October 2002?

George Packer: The book addresses all of your questions in its first four chapters. I wrote a piece called "Dreaming of Democracy" that was published by the New York Times Magazine two weeks before the war began. It expressed a number of misgivings about the administration's capacity and willingness to do what it would take in Iraq, and it sketched out a number of gloomy scenarios that experts were trying to bring to the attention of top officials. But I didn't completely grasp the nature of the administration's airtight groupthink until after the invasion, when I reported in both Iraq and Washington.

Iraqis are the best authorities on the subject of their own lives and interests. I have heard a few of them say that it would have been better to have left Saddam in power than to bring such chaos and violence--but not many. One aspect of their quality of life that has to be factored in his hope. There was none under Saddam; there is a small (dwindling) amount now.


Atlanta, Ga: Mr. Packer - how many of the difficulties we've faced since the fall of Baghdad would you attribute to US misimpressions as to how much of a mess Iraq had become under Saddam? It seems that most people who've been tyrannized for a generation or more may not be well equipped to handle the opportunities and uncertainties of freedom from tyranny, while the surviving elements of the old regime usually are (to bad ends.) this in turn suggests our intelligence was horrible on this front as well, or that the Admin ignored it. your thoughts? also, per an earlier comment here, I believe both C Powell and D Rumsfeld are combat veterans, to the extent that matters.

George Packer: You're absolutely right about the effect of decades of tyranny, and you state it eloquently. There's a chapter of my book titled "Psychological Demolition" after a phrase used by an Iraqi woman. An Iraqi psychiatrist said, "We lack the power to experience freedom," which was one of the more profound things I heard in Iraq. Of course, the circumstances of Iraq after the invasion made it that much more difficult.

On Powell and Rumsfeld: the former wasn't an architect of this war, and the latter served during peacetime.


West Hartford, Conn.: Mr. Packer,

Given the focus on democratizing the Middle East, did you note a shift in the Bush administration's policy in the most recent speech by the President? Did his more overt references to the Cold War signal a shift of any kind or is that an act of searching for some historical analogy to connect with the public?

George Packer: I think the president has been using this language--a struggle against totalitarianism, like the war against fascism and the Cold War--ever since his speech to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. But four years later, with our position around the world in so much trouble, he no longer has the power to rally the public behind him. Americans don't need to be told the stakes. They want to hear the strategy, and before that they want to hear the problems acknowledged.


Munich, Germany: I was in favor of the war in Iraq, under the premise that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear and chemical weapons. After this was proven not to be the case, the ensuing incompetence of the initial occupation (allowing plunder and chaos to take hold and reign) has played into the hands of criminals and extremists. Even if Iraq does not fall into outright civil war, Iraq will be a no-man's-land for Westerners for quite a while.

How do you see the insurgency in Iraq effecting the efforts to stabilize democracy in Afghanistan, and how is the rest of the Middle-East reacting to a war-torn Iraq?

George Packer: The Middle East is reacting to war-torn Iraq in unhelpful ways. Iran has taken the chance to exert control over the Shiite south, more than most people realize, through money, weapons, and intelligence agents. There is some evidence that elements of the Iranian government are even collaborating with Sunni insurgents. Syria has become the central station in the underground railroad of jihadis from around the Arab world into Iraq, and it is the headquarters of Baathists in exile. Jordan is officially helping the U.S. in the effort to train Iraqi security forces; unofficially, it is watching the specter of Shiite domination in Iraq with horror. Turkey has threatened to intervene if the Kurds take over Kirkuk and its oil, though this has been toned down recently. The Saudi government is warning against an Iraqi implosion, while young Saudis, encouraged by their imams, are entering Iraq in large numbers, with large sums of cash, to make the implosion happen.


Silver Spring, Md.: In the lead-up to March 2003 invasion, to what extent do you think the personalities of the Western players involved got in the way of finding a common solution? I am thinking in particular of de Villepin's "sandbagging" of Powell in a January meeting, as well as the anti-France rhetoric coming out of the administration. Thanks.

George Packer: That's an excellent point. In general we underestimate the role of personality, as well as chance, in determining events on the scale of the Iraq war. I think de Villepin, who is a poet and a student of French literature, fell in love with his new role as tribune of the world's oppressed peoples under the heel of the hyper-power. In turn, the top officials in the administration, and their boosters in the think tanks and the press, became intoxicated with their rhetoric about Munich and appeasement. The U.S. and the French, with such actors playing central roles, brought out the worst in each other, with each becoming more entrenched in an untenable position.


George Packer: Many thanks to all those who wrote in, and apologies to those whose questions I wasn't able to answer.


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