Fareed Zakaria: Review of George Packer's The Assassins' Gate
IN "The Assassins' Gate," his chronicle of the Iraq war, George Packer tells the tale of Drew Erdmann, a young American official in Baghdad. Erdmann, a recent Harvard Ph.D. in history, finds himself rereading Marc Bloch's classic firsthand account of the fall of France in 1940, "Strange Defeat." He was particularly drawn to a few lines. "The ABC of our profession," Bloch wrote, "is to avoid . . . large abstract terms in order to try to discover behind them the only concrete realities, which are human beings." The story of America in Iraq is one of abstract ideas and concrete realities. "Between them," Packer says, "lies a distance even greater than the 8,000 miles from Washington to Baghdad."
Packer begins his absorbing account with the ideas that led the United States to war. A few neoconservatives, most prominently Paul Wolfowitz, had long believed that ousting Saddam Hussein would pave the way for a grand reordering of the Middle East, pushing it away from tyranny and anti-Americanism and toward modernity and democracy. Others, including Douglas Feith, explained that eliminating Hussein would be particularly good for Israel's security. But the broadest reason to intervene in Iraq was that it was a bold use of American power that mixed force with idealism. Many neoconservatives were Reaganites who believed in an assertive, even aggressive, American posture in the world. For them the 1990's - under Bush père and Clinton alike - had been years of retreat. "They were supremely confident," Packer writes, "all they needed was a mission."
But they wouldn't have had one without 9/11. As one of the neoconservatives Packer interviewed correctly points out, "September 11 is the turning point. Not anything else." After 9/11, Bush - and many Americans, including many liberals - were searching for a use of the nation's power that mixed force with idealism and promised to reorder the Middle East. In Iraq they found it.
Packer collects his articles from The New Yorker but goes well beyond them. His book lacks a tight thesis or structure and as a result meanders at times, petering out in its final sections. But this is more than made up for by the sheer integrity and intelligence of its reporting, from Washington, New York, London and, of course, Iraq. Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq. In reading him we see the staggering gap between abstract ideas and concrete reality.
Hard as it is to believe, the Bush administration took on the largest foreign policy project in a generation with little planning or forethought. It occupied a foreign country of 25 million people in the heart of the Middle East pretty much on the fly. Packer, who was in favor of the war, reserves judgment and commentary in most of the book but finally cannot contain himself: "Swaddled in abstract ideas . . . indifferent to accountability," those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq "turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one," he writes. "When things went wrong, they found other people to blame."
Packer recounts the prewar discussions in the State Department's"Future of Iraq Project," which produced an enormous document outlining the political challenges in governing Iraq. He describes Drew Erdmann's memo, written for Colin Powell, analyzing previous postwar reconstructions in the 20th century. Erdmann's conclusion was that success depended on two factors, establishing security and having international support. These internal documents were mirrored by several important think-tank studies that all made similar points, specifically on the need for large-scale forces to maintain security. One would think that this Hobbesian message - that order is the first requisite of civilization - would appeal to conservatives. In fact all of this careful planning and thinking was ignored or dismissed.