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Grand illusions

The Assassins' Gate America in Iraq George Packer Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 468 pp., $26

November 06, 2005|Daniel Kurtz-Phelan | Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

WHEN George Packer first arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2003, his prewar idealism almost instantly smashed up against the country's "postwar" reality. Packer had spent the months leading up to the invasion arguing the liberal case for regime change in Baghdad. When he finally glimpsed a U.S. soldier on Iraqi soil, he found himself "stupefied that all the abstract arguments over the idea of a war had actually led to this."

Two and a half years after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, Packer has written "The Assassins' Gate," a deftly constructed and eloquently told account of the war's origins and aftermath. Packer, now a staff writer for the New Yorker, was an ambivalent member of an unusual prewar alliance of grand-strategizing neoconservatives and humanitarian-minded liberal hawks who were spinning visions of democratic transformation in the Middle East. "By a chain reaction, a reverse domino effect," Packer writes of their theory, "war in Iraq would weaken the Middle East's dictatorships and undermine its murderous ideologies and begin to spread the balm of liberal democracy." With the Bush administration's primary justifications for war dissolved -- Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, to almost everyone's surprise, and Hussein's support for Al Qaeda, to the surprise of almost no one who was paying attention -- spreading democracy is the only one left.

For Packer, "the story of the Iraq war is a story of ideas," and his opening chapters try to clarify what those ideas were and, more vexingly, how they came to have such influence. The key figure in this regard is the liberal-minded Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya. Long before Defense Department neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi became household names, Makiya was huddled in cafes in Cambridge, Mass., denouncing Hussein's brutality. As the 1990s wore on, Makiya made common cause with an array of now infamous characters -- some unsavory opportunists, some principled (if often feckless) idealists -- each of whom had come to see a liberated Iraq at the heart of his particular vision of a new world. Makiya and those swayed by his human rights-centered arguments became, Packer writes, "uneasy allies of administration hawks."

When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 revived the crusading spirit in U.S. foreign policy, these advocates of regime change were the only ones waiting with a plan grand enough to satisfy Bush's newfound ambitions. Ultimately, though, even this explanation is not completely satisfactory. Packer quotes Richard Haass, former director of policy planning in the State Department, about a June 2002 meeting at which then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice indicated that Bush had already made up his mind on Iraq. "This was news to Haass," Packer writes. "Everyone at the top level of the administration could recite the arguments on either side by heart; the question was how to weigh them. Now the policy had been set without the weighing ever taking place." "It was an accretion, a tipping point," Haass later told Packer. "A decision was not made -- a decision happened, and you can't say when or how."

Any discussion of Iraq must begin by acknowledging that it's too soon to tell how things will turn out. Exactly where the country is going is a matter of framing and focus -- whether you see the purple-stained thumbs of women leaving polling stations or the grisly aftermath of a suicide bombing, the abuse by Americans at Abu Ghraib or the mass graves of Hussein's torture victims. Many writers, especially those with a partisan stake in the outcome, have ventured to postwar Iraq to cherry-pick images that support their prewar opinions. Packer also set out "to see the political and cultural flowering post-Saddam Iraq might produce," but he resists the temptations of "willful blindness." Although he works in snapshots and anecdotes, every time an image might allow him to settle into a simple conclusion about the war's worthiness, he turns his attention -- and his considerable powers of description and dramatization -- to another image that points to the opposite conclusion. The cumulative effect is a wrenching cognitive dissonance -- the kind, Packer observes, that few Americans can stand but with which Iraqis live every day.

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