Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq
By George Packer
New York: FSG
$26; 467 pages
by John Freeman
memory hole created by our 24-hour news cycle is vast and
and nothing suffers because of it quite like our understanding
of the war in Iraq. It is useful to remember that the Bush
administration sold this war to Americans (and the world)
as a matter of national security and WMDs. If we waited
too long, Bush said, our smoking gun might just come in
the shape of a mushroom cloud.
As we now know, this kind of talk was mostly marketing.
The Bush administration planned on removing Saddam long
before they took office. They simply needed a reason that
would galvanize the American public.
New Yorker staff writer George Packer generously accepts
this bait and switch job as politics as usual, but he is
curious about how an administration that campaigned on a
platform of isolationism became firm believers in the most
far-reaching foreign policy adventure in decades.
his new book, The Assassin’s Gate, Packer tracks
this evolution within the White House and out onto the battlefield,
emerging with a sobering tale about the danger of big ideas.
Like several journalists before him, Packer finds the real
smoking gun of this war not in WMDs or even 9/11, but in
a 13-year-old policy paper called, “Defense Planning Guidance
of 1992,” which was commissioned under the first President
Bush by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
The paper argued that in the wake of communism’s demise,
America’s number one national security goal ought to be
“precluding the reemergence of a new rival.” Regime change
in Iraq was the centerpiece of this vision.
After September 11th, this paper became the blueprint for
America’s involvement in the War on Terror, opening up,
as Packer shows, a window of opportunity for players who
wanted to put pet ideas into motion.
For instance, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld looked to
Iraq as a larger scale testing ground for his new, leaner
army, which had just won a stunning, if short-lived success
But Rumsfeld was so wedded to his vision of a 21st century
fighting force that when his own army Chief of Staff, Anthony
Shinseki, estimated that he would need “several hundred
thousand” troops for the job in Iraq, he demoted and then
effectively fired the four-star general.
In fact, the most alarming part of this book is how often
this administration, when faced with news it didn’t want
to hear, refused to listen and then reprimanded (or even
fired) the people who spoke up.
When Bush’s economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay came up with
a price tag of $200 billion for the war – which has turned
out to be low – he too was reprimanded and then fired.
Other people got the message. If they weren’t on board,
they were off the boat. As a result, Packer reveals, the
U.S. was sorely unprepared for the realities of life in
Baghdad after Saddam was toppled.
This led to a staggering degree of incompetence in the field,
which Packer documents in a series of vivid dispatches from
Baghdad, revealing why his reporting from Iraq won him a
George Polk Award.
After the city fell, a 25-year-old was put in charge of
overseeing “the creation of the Baghdad stock market,” writes
Packer, “and another 25-year-old...helped write the interim
constitution while filling out his law school applications.”
A list of sites to secure from looters was drawn up by one
Harvard trained academic by consulting a Lonely Planet guide.
His recommendations, which would have saved $12 billion
in damage, got lost in the shuffle.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis’ patience was winding down. Power
was sporadic, sewers weren’t working, and revenge killings
against former Baath party members were common. One of Packer’s
most chilling reports comes from a morgue where their bodies
start turning up.
Tolerance for this chaos ran out on the watch of L. Paul
Bremer III, the second head of the Coalition Provisional
Authority. Packer says Bremer made the key failures of not
securing the city from looting, disbanding the Iraqi army,
and of disbursing funds too slowly.
Unlike Anthony Shadid’s tremendous work of reportage, Night
Draws Near, The Assassin’s Gate does not attempt to
present these failures in the context of Baghdad’s rich,
if troubled history. Sensing, perhaps, his limits as a white
reporter working in an Arab country through translators,
Packer keeps his eye fixed on America’s shifting presence
within present-day Iraq.
But he does find room to note that Americans are not the
only ones who fell prey to big ideas in this debacle. Visiting
Iraq on and off over two years, Packer manages to meet and
talk to dozens of Iraqis; more often than not they are yet
hopeful. Several of them even waited out the years of Saddam’s
power in exile, harboring wild dreams of a new beginning.
They do not let go of these visions lightly.
Their presence in this narrative just goes to show that
no one in this war has relinquished their plans easily.
But the failure of optimistic views, be they Iraqi or American,
has led to the rise of a far darker and more dangerous belief,
held by a growing part of the Iraqi population: resistance
at all costs. In the end, Packer notes, that might just
prove the most unbending idea of them all.