[Marxism] Article on George Packer's book on Iraq

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 7 07:40:38 MDT 2005

(An interesting article on George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate: America in 
Iraq". Packer was a pro-war liberal who grew disenchanted with the whole 
effort after the Iraqis had the temerity to resist the occupation. 
Apparently, his book is an extended critique of the awful Kenan Makiya and 
Paul Berman, so good on him for that at least.)


In the definitive book about the Iraq war, liberal hawk George Packer tells 
the whole story of America's worst foreign-policy debacle -- and reveals 
how good intentions can go terribly wrong.

By Gary Kamiya

Oct. 07, 2005 | Most of the American left lined up against the war in Iraq. 
But some did not. Among the liberal intellectuals who supported the 
invasion was George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His new 
book, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," proves that holding strong 
opinions about a subject does not prevent a journalist of integrity from 
reporting the truth, even if it flies in the face of what he had believed. 
"The Assassins' Gate" is almost certain to stand as the most comprehensive 
journalistic account of the greatest foreign-policy debacle in U.S. history.

A funny thing happened to Packer: He went to Iraq. Reporting is a solvent 
that dissolves illusions quickly if one has an open mind, and Packer 
brought that and much more. His first-rate reporting from occupied Iraq, 
and his superb work covering the corridors of power in Washington, offers 
an extraordinarily wide-ranging portrait of the Iraq war, from its genesis 
in neoconservative think tanks to its catastrophic execution to its 
devastating effects on ordinary Americans and Iraqis. Anthony Shadid, in 
"Darkness Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," offers 
a deeper portrait of the Iraqi people, but he does not have Packer's 
majestic scope. "The Assassins' Gate" is the best book yet about the Iraq war.

Packer's intentions were indisputably good. A man with a finely developed 
moral sensibility -- perhaps too fine -- Packer never pretended to know 
that he was right about Iraq. Although he accepted the most dubious and 
risky motivation for the war, the hubristic dream of implanting democracy 
by force in the Arab world, his real passion was to liberate the Iraqi 
people from a loathsome tyrant. He disliked and feared the Bush 
administration, and ended up throwing the dice on the war more out of hope 
than certainty.

"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. 
One doesn't get one's choice of wars," he writes. "I wanted Iraqis to be 
let out of prison; I wanted to see a homicidal dictator removed from power 
before he committed mass murder again; I wanted to see if an open society 
stood a chance of taking root in the heart of the Arab world. More than 
anyone else, Kanan Makiya guided my thinking, and I always found it easier 
to imagine a happy outcome when I was within earshot of him."

As much as it is a history of the war itself, this book is a history of the 
war of ideas around it. For Packer himself, the two key figures in that war 
were the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya and the cultural critic and New Republic 
contributor Paul Berman. Of the two, Makiya is by far more important. He 
serves as the moral center of the book, embodying the idealism and 
illusions that Packer himself held. If Makiya appealed to Packer's heart, 
Berman excited his brain. In many ways, some of them unacknowledged, "The 
Assassins' Gate" is the story of Packer's disillusionment with the ideas of 
both men.

Packer is a rare combination: an excellent reporter, a sophisticated 
analyst and a fine writer. He was also ubiquitous. No other journalist can 
match the breadth of Packer's Iraq coverage: He interviewed neocon war 
architect Richard Perle and talked to ordinary Iraqis after Saddam's fall; 
he covered a surreal prewar London meeting of Iraqi exiles swarming around 
Ahmad Chalabi and wrote about a dedicated U.S. Army captain trying to 
mediate disputes in a Baghdad slum. Reading "The Assassins' Gate" is like 
being escorted through the corridors of the Pentagon, the lounges of 
right-wing think tanks and the dangerous streets of Baghdad by a fearless 
and curious essayist, one simultaneously alive to intellectual nuances and 
to the human tragedies and triumphs he observes.

"The Assassins' Gate" is likely to be the definitive guide to one of the 
most outrageous scandals in U.S. history: the Bush administration's total 
failure to plan for the aftermath of a war of choice. That failure may have 
doomed the entire adventure. It cost the United States billions of dollars 
and hundreds of lives. Its cost to the Iraqi people and nation, which now 
faces a possible civil war, cannot be calculated. In a just world, Bush, 
Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Feith and their underlings would be 
standing before a Senate committee investigating their catastrophic 
failures, and Packer's book would be Exhibit A.

Packer begins by exploring what he calls the "war of ideas" that was waged 
between the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 and the attacks of Sept. 11. 
He describes the growing schism between the old-guard "realism" of Bush the 
Elder's administration, which wanted to preserve the balance of power and 
was suspicious of any American intervention that did not involve "vital 
national interests," with the far more aggressive neoconservatives, the 
group of ideologues that were ultimately responsible for the Iraq war. The 
neocons' muscular, nationalistic vision of foreign policy, rooted in a 
Manichaean, Cold War anti-communism combined with a kind of chauvinist 
idealism, had found a home in Reagan's administration. The neocons then 
migrated into the first Bush administration and various think tanks and 
pressure groups, including the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the 
Project for a New American Century (PNAC), where they kept the bombs fused 
and ready to go. Sept. 11 provided the opportunity to drop them.

Packer describes how the first salvo in what was to become the Iraq war was 
fired by PNAC, whose members included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, 
Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, James Woolsey and William Bennett; "more 
than half of the founding members would go on to assume high positions in 
the administration of George W. Bush." In 1998, PNAC sent an open letter to 
President Clinton, arguing that the policy of containment had failed and 
urging him to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Weakened by the Lewinsky scandal, 
Clinton reluctantly signed the Iraq Liberation Act. "Regime change in Iraq 
became official U.S. policy."

"Why Iraq?" Packer asks. "Why did Iraq become the leading cause of the 
hawks?" He gives two reasons: Paul Wolfowitz's desire to atone for 
America's failure to topple Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War, and 
the neocons' obsession with defending Israel.

In Packer's account, Wolfowitz is a fascinating, fatally flawed figure, an 
idealist who failed to take actions in support of his ideals. As Dick 
Cheney's undersecretary of defense for policy, Wolfowitz went along with 
Bush I's decision not to oust Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War. But 
he was haunted by that choice, and determined to rectify it. "More than 
Perle, Feith, and the neoconservatives in his department -- certainly more 
than Rumsfeld and Cheney -- Wolfowitz cared," Packer writes. "For him Iraq 
was personal." Packer holds Wolfowitz largely responsible for the Bush 
administration's failure to put enough troops into Iraq, and to plan for 
the aftermath.

The leading light of the neoconservatives was Richard Perle, whom Packer 
describes as the Iraq war's "impresario, with one degree of separation from 
everyone who mattered." A partisan of Israel's hard-line Likud Party and a 
protégé of neocon Democrat Scoop Jackson, Perle recruited two other staunch 
advocates of Israel, Douglas Feith and Elliott Abrams, to work for Jackson 
and hawkish Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Packer writes, "When I half 
jokingly suggested that the Iraq War began in Scoop Jackson's office, Perle 
said, 'There's an element of that.'" In 1985, Perle had met and become 
friends with an Iraqi exile named Ahmad Chalabi. "By the time of the PNAC 
letter in January 1998, Perle knew exactly how Saddam could be overthrown: 
Put Ahmad Chalabi at the head of an army of Iraqi insurgents and back him 
with American military power and cash."

Almost all these figures, starting with Scoop Jackson, shared a key 
obsession: Israel. "In 1996, some of the people in Perle's circle had begun 
to think about what it would mean for Saddam Hussein to be removed from the 
Middle East scene. "They concluded it would be very good for Israel," 
Packer writes. "Perle chaired a study group of eight pro-Likud Americans, 
including Douglas Feith, who had worked under Perle in the Reagan 
administration, and David Wurmser, who was the author of the paper produced 
under the group's auspices ... Afterwards the group was pleased enough with 
its work to send the paper to the newly elected Israeli prime minister, 
Benjamin Netanyahu." The paper, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing 
the Realm," advocated smashing the Palestinians militarily, removing Saddam 
from power, and installing a Hashemite king on the Iraq throne.

The dangerous absurdity of this scheme (elements of which appeared in a 
later book by Perle and Bush speechwriter David Frum, modestly titled "An 
End to Evil") did not prevent it from being accepted by high officials of 
the Bush administration. "A few weeks before the start of the Iraq War, a 
State Department official described for me what he called the 'everybody 
move over one theory': Israel would annex the occupied territories, the 
Palestinians would get Jordan, and the Jordanian Hashemites would be 
restored to the throne of Iraq," Packer writes. The neocons were 
out-Likuding the Likud: Even Ariel Sharon had long abandoned his beloved 
"Jordan is Palestine" idea. That Douglas Feith, one of the ideologues who 
subscribed to such lunatic plans (the departing Colin Powell denounced 
Feith to President Bush as "a card-carrying member of the Likud") was in 
charge of planning for Iraq is almost beyond belief.

"Does this mean that a pro-Likud cabal insinuated its way into the high 
councils of the U.S. government and took hold of the apparatus of American 
foreign policy to serve Israeli interests (as some critics of the war have 
charged, rather than addressing its merits head on?)" Packer asks. "Is 
neoconservative another word for Jewish (as some advocates of the war have 
complained, rather than addressing their critics head on)?" Packer does not 
answer the first question directly, but he makes it clear that the 
intellectual origins of the war were inseparably tied to neocon concerns 
about Israel. "For Feith and Wurmser, the security of Israel was probably 
the prime mover. The idea of realigning the Middle East by overthrowing 
Saddam Hussein was first proposed by a group of Jewish policy makers and 
intellectuals who were close to the Likud. And when the second President 
Bush looked around for a way to think about the uncharted era that began on 
September 11, 2001, there was one already available."

While Bush and his Cold War hardliners Cheney and Rumsfeld were preparing 
to implement the neocons' grand vision of remaking the Middle East so that 
it would be friendlier to the United States and Israel, what were liberals 
doing? In Packer's view, those who did not support the war were either 
naive ditherers or excessively cautious, unwilling to fight for the noble 
causes that had once drawn liberals. Packer notes the tension between the 
dovish legacy of Vietnam and the impetus to hawkishness given by the 
humanitarian wars of the '80s. He writes that he, like most liberals, was a 
dove, but that the first Gulf War changed his thinking. "[T]he footage of 
grateful Kuwaitis waving at columns of American troops streaming through 
the liberated capital knocked something ajar in my worldview. American 
soldiers were the heroes ... The decade that followed the Gulf War 
scrambled everything and turned many of the old truths on their heads. The 
combination of the Cold War's end, the outbreak of genocidal wars and 
ethnic conflicts in Europe and Africa, and a Democratic presidency made it 
possible for liberals to contemplate and even advocate the use of force for 
the first time since the Kennedy years." The drive behind this new, 
muscular liberalism came from what Packer rightly lauds as "one of the 
twentieth century's greatest movements, the movement for human rights."

Packer describes how the Bush administration began taking steps to invade 
Iraq almost immediately after 9/11. (Packer notes that, as former Treasury 
Secretary Paul O'Neill recounted, Bush officials were talking about 
removing Saddam almost as soon as Bush took office in January 2001.) This 
is familiar territory, but as usual Packer provides some unusual insights. 
He notes that Bush and Wolfowitz, in particular, bonded: "They believed in 
the existence of evil, and they had messianic notions of what America 
should do about it." In March 2002, Bush interrupted a meeting between 
Condoleezza Rice and three senators to say, "Fuck Saddam. We're taking him 

As plans for war raced ahead, a secret new unit was being set up in the 
Pentagon, overseen by Douglas Feith and his deputy, William Luti, who was 
such a maniacal hawk that his colleagues called him "Uber-Luti." (At a 
staff meeting, Luti once called retired Gen. Anthony Zinni a traitor for 
questioning the Iraq war.) The secret unit was called the Office of Special 
Plans, and it was charged with planning for Iraq. Packer's account of this 
office is chilling. Its main purpose was to cook up intelligence to justify 
the war, which was then "stovepiped" directly to Dick Cheney's neocon chief 
of staff, I. Lewis Libby (who has now been linked to the Valerie Plame 
scandal). Its cryptic name as well as its opposition to the traditional 
intelligence agencies, which had failed to deliver the goods on Saddam, 
reflected the views of its director, Abram Shulsky, a former Perle aide, 
housemate of Wolfowitz's at Cornell, and student of the Chicago classics 
professor Leo Strauss. Strauss, around whom a virtual cult had gathered, 
had famously discussed esoteric and hidden meanings in great works, and 
Shulsky wrapped himself in the lofty mantle of his former professor to 
justify the secret and "innovative" approach of the OSP.

In fact, besides feeding bogus intelligence from Iraqi exile sources into 
the rapacious craw of the White House, the OSP was nothing but a spin 
machine to prepare the way to war: No actual "planning" was done. According 
to Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, the "crafting and approval of the exact 
words to use when discussing Iraq, WMD, and terrorism were, for most of us, 
the only known functions of OSP and Mr. Shulsky." (Kwiatkowski later 
recalled a bit of advice she got from a high-level civil servant: "If I 
wanted to be successful here," she wrote, "I'd better remember not to say 
anything positive about the Palestinians.")

The OSP also recruited several Middle East experts, including Harold Rhode, 
a protégé of the Princeton Arabist Bernard Lewis. Rhode, whose keen grasp 
of regional realities was reflected in his musing that one way to transform 
the Middle East would be to change the Farsi alphabet in Iran to Roman, was 
an ardent proponent, like other neocons, of installing Ahmad Chalabi as 
prime minister -- thus restoring Shiites to power. "Shiite power was the 
key to the whole neoconservative vision for Iraq," Packer notes. "The 
convergence of ideas, interests, and affections between certain American 
Jews and Iraqi Shia was one of the more curious subplots of the Iraq War 
... the Shia and the Jews, oppressed minorities in the region, could do 
business, and ... traditional Iraqi Shiism (as opposed to the theocratic, 
totalitarian kind that had taken Iran captive) could lead the way to 
reorienting the Arab world toward America and Israel."

But the neocons had a far darker view of Islam and the Muslim world as a 
whole. "A government official who had frequent dealings with Feith, Rhode 
and the others came up with an analogy for their attitude toward Islam: 
'The same way evangelicals in the South wrestle with homosexuals, they feel 
about Muslims -- people to be saved, if only they would do things on our 
terms. Hate the sin, love the sinner."

With Pentagon planning for a U.S. invasion of a major Arab state in these 
capable hands, those who were actually working on real plans -- and knew 
what they were talking about -- were cut out of the process. The State 
Department's Future of Iraq Project, run by a competent analyst named Tom 
Warrick, addressed many of the concrete issues that would ultimately 
bedevil the occupation. But the Pentagon and the White House mistrusted the 
State Department, which was filled with Arabists and thus ideologically 
suspect. And the coup de grâce was administered by none other than the 
lofty idealist turned practical politician Kanan Makiya. Makiya, who had 
emerged from obscurity to find himself courted by the White House and a 
figure with influence at the highest levels of the U.S. government, had 
made the fateful decision to form an alliance with Ahmad Chalabi (Makiya 
told another Iraqi exile that "Iraq has one democrat -- Ahmad Chalabi"), 
and had decided that the Future of Iraq Project would weaken Chalabi. The 
Pentagon ordered the Future of Iraq Project's report shelved.

The vindictive pettiness of the Bush administration's hawks was 
astonishing. Warrick himself, who Packer writes "had done as much thinking 
about postwar Iraq as any American official," was suddenly removed from Jay 
Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the 
predecessor of the Coalition Provisional Authority, at the orders of Dick 
Cheney, who despised him for ideological reasons. Cheney also ordered the 
removal of another State Department specialist named Meghan O'Sullivan, 
because he "disliked some things that O'Sullivan -- a protégé of the 
ideologically moderate Richard Haass, and therefore suspect -- had 
written." Know-nothings, true believers and free-market Republicans were 
installed instead.

Perhaps the most morally shocking revelation in "The Assassins' Gate" is 
that the real reason the Bush administration did not plan for the aftermath 
of the war was that such planning might have prevented the war from taking 
place. One example of this was the administration's rejection of an offer 
of help from a coalition of heavyweight bipartisan policy groups. Leslie 
Gelb, president of the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations, had offered 
to assist the administration in its postwar planning: He proposed that his 
group and two other respected think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the 
Center for Strategic and International Studies, prepare a study. "'This is 
just what we need," Rice said. 'We'll be too busy to do it ourselves.' But 
she didn't want the involvement of Heritage, which had been critical of the 
idea of an Iraq war. 'Do AEI instead.'"

Representatives of the think tanks duly met with National Security Council 
head Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley. "John Hamre of CSIS 
went in expecting to pitch the idea to Rice, but the meeting was odd from 
the start: Rice seemed attentive only to [AEI president Chris] DeMuth, and 
it was as if the White House was trying to sell something to the American 
Enterprise Institute rather than the other way around. When Gelb, on 
speakerphone from New York, began to describe his concept, DeMuth cut him 
off. 'Wait a minute. What's all this planning and thinking about postwar 
Iraq?' He turned to Rice. 'This is nation building, and you said you were 
against that. In the campaign you said it, the president has said it. Does 
he know you're doing this? Does Karl Rove know?'

"Without AEI, Rice couldn't sign on. Two weeks later, Hadley called Gelb to 
tell him what Gelb already knew: 'We're not going to go ahead with it.' 
Gelb later explained, 'They thought all those things would get in the way 
of going to war.'"

In effect, the far-right AEI was running the White House's Iraq policy -- 
and the AEI's war-at-all-costs imperatives drove the Pentagon, too. "'The 
senior leadership of the Pentagon was very worried about the realities of 
the postconflict phase being known,' a Defense official said, 'because if 
you are Feith or you are Wolfowitz, your primary concern is to achieve the 

Those involved in this massive deception have not been punished in any way. 
The officials who lied to get their war will never pay any price for their 
deeds. But one could make a legitimate argument that their actions 
constitute one of the greatest betrayals of the nation in its history.

If "The Assassins' Gate" achieved nothing more than exposing this grotesque 
low point in the history of American governance, it would have earned an 
honored place in the accounts of this catastrophic war. But it does much 
more. Packer's reporting from Iraq is also exceptional -- varied, 
empathetic and intelligent. He provides an insider's account of the crucial 
mistakes -- the disbanding of the Iraqi army, de-Baathification, the 
failure to provide security and restore services -- that helped doom the 
occupation. He reveals the appalling cluelessness of the American officials 
in the Green Zone, almost completely cut off from the deteriorating 
realities outside. He focuses on several admirable Americans, including a 
straight-talking Army captain named John Prior, whose efforts to help the 
Iraqi people are heartbreakingly undermined by the incompetence of their 
leaders and by the intractable problems of a nation emerging from decades 
of dictatorship. His chapter about Chris Frosheiser, the anguished father 
of a young American killed in Iraq, with whom Packer established a personal 
relationship and who desperately wanted to find out if his son died for 
something worthwhile, is one of the most moving pieces of journalism to 
come out of the war.

Packer's portraits of individual Iraqis, and his assessment of the Iraqi 
people as a whole, are also compelling. He never forgets that wars and the 
big ideas behind them always come down, in the end, to the fate of 
individual human beings. Above all, he is on the side of the Iraqis. He 
introduces us to an appealing young woman named Aseel, a computer 
programmer who supports the invasion and whose dreams of a better life 
"become one index for me of the status of America's vision for Iraq." And 
he does not shy away from reporting on the many Iraqis who turned against 
the Americans almost immediately. Like all other observers, he points out 
that the Americans' failure to restore order, prevent anarchy and provide 
services played a key role in the Iraqi disillusionment with the United States.

But Packer's attempt to explain why the Iraqis did not welcome their 
"liberators" (the word deserves to be put in quotes not because the 
Americans did not free Iraqis from Saddam, but because the reality that 
followed was so hideous) still bears some traces of the hawkish illusions 
that led him to support the war. He cites one Iraqi's belief that his 
countrymen, ground down by years of dictatorship, "lack the power to 
experience freedom." And he closes a chapter, tellingly titled 
"Psychological Demolition," with a similar quote from an exile: "'Never 
afraid of Saddam -- beaten by the mentality of the Iraqi people.'"

There is, of course, considerable truth in this explanation for the Iraqi 
anger at the United States. But Packer fails to adequately grasp other, 
perhaps more important, reasons -- which are laid out in Anthony Shadid's 
"Darkness Draws Near." As Shadid reports, the main reason many if not most 
Iraqis opposed the U.S. war was national pride and a deep sense of honor, 
combined with a profound distrust of the West engendered by British 
colonial rule and smoldering anger at America for its near-total support 
for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Getting rid of Saddam, 
even if the aftermath of the invasion had gone better, would not have made 
these attitudes go away.

And there is, of course, another reason the Iraqis were angry at the U.S.: 
the war itself. Packer reports on incidents in which innocent Iraqis are 
killed by jittery G.I.'s, and includes a harrowing scene of a nasty, 
possibly sadistic young pretty-boy soldier taunting some terrified 
captives. He also grasps the full import of Abu Ghraib, and, to his credit, 
assigns ultimate responsibility for that national disgrace to the Bush 
administration. Yet unlike Shadid, he does not delve into the full horror 
of war. Shadid tells the stories of innocent Iraqi boys torn apart by 
American bullets; of families huddled in terror in Baghdad before the 
invasion, waiting for the bombs to fall; of families shattered, homes 
wrecked, the innumerable hideous events that always happen during and after 

Packer is aware of those horrors, but they are not part of his central 
narrative. He remains invested in the idea of a good war, a liberating war, 
and averse to the "familiar postures" of the left, whose "softer, more 
cautious worldview ... often amounted in practice to isolationism." Even at 
the end of his book, Packer remains unrepentant about his support for the war.

Packer's attitudes and beliefs about the war play a curious, elusive role 
in "The Assassins' Gate." He does not foreground them, but neither does he 
shrink from revealing them. What makes those beliefs hard to pin down is 
that some -- but not all -- of them changed in the course of his 
experiences, and Packer does not always inform us of when. To paraphrase 
the old line about Nixon, it is difficult to know what Packer knew and when 
he knew it.

For example, Packer argues that Bush officials "were peculiarly unsuited to 
deal with the consequences of the Bush Doctrine" because, as Cold War hawks 
and believers in the unfettered use of American power, they had "sat out 
the debates of the 1990s about humanitarian war, international standards, 
nation building, democracy promotion ... When September 11 forced the 
imagination to grapple with something radically new, the president's 
foreign-policy advisors reached for what they had always known. The threat, 
as they saw it, lay in well-armed enemy states. The answer, as ever, was 
military power and the will to use it."

This analysis is acute, and it goes a long way to explaining the Bush 
administration's failures in the post-invasion period. But Packer does not 
tell us when he reached this conclusion about Team Bush. Did he know it 
from the start, but decided to support the war anyway, because "one doesn't 
get one's choice of wars"? Or did he only reach it after the fact?

Packer's decision not to emphasize his own place in the narrative is 
understandable, and mostly laudable. "The Assassins' Gate" is mainly a work 
of history, and an exceptionally reliable one. All that matters in 
historical works is whether something is true, not when the historian 
learned it. But insofar as the book is about Packer's own beliefs, and 
insofar as those beliefs shed light on a whole set of arguments about the 
wisdom and morality of the Iraq war, the question does matter. To 
understand those beliefs, we must look more closely at the two figures that 
guided and defined them before the war: Kanan Makiya and Paul Berman. How 
much Packer still subscribes to their ideas is one of the lingering 
questions left by his book: It is possible that he does not know himself.

That Packer was drawn to Makiya is not surprising. Of all those who argued 
for the war, Makiya was by far the most convincing. A brilliant, 
impassioned writer who refused to allow the West to forget the dreadful 
crimes of Saddam Hussein, who argued that the Iraqi people deserved a 
Western-style democracy, his support for the war carried the stamp of moral 
authority. Packer noticed Makiya walking around Cambridge, Mass., where 
Packer was living at the time, and introduced himself. So begins a 
relationship that runs like a unifying thread through the book. Makiya is 
Virgil to Packer's Dante, a man whose unimpeachable decency, idealism and 
courage coexists with a naiveté verging on myopia and -- it turns out -- a 
near-complete lack of knowledge of the land he had fled so many years before.

Much of the pathos of "The Assassins' Gate" derives from Packer's 
increasing realization that Makiya's beautiful vision bore no connection to 
reality. Over the course of his reporting from Iraq, Packer realized just 
how disconnected from Iraq Makiya was. As the situation in Iraq 
deteriorated in the summer after the invasion, Packer ran into his mentor 
in Baghdad. Makiya was working on a project called the Memory Foundation, a 
memorial to the dreadful decades of Saddam's rule which he hoped would 
"[reshape] Iraqis' perceptions of themselves in such a way as to create the 
basis for a tolerant civil society that is capable of adjusting to liberal 
democratic culture."

By now, Packer has little patience for such projects, however well-meaning. 
"Makiya was consumed with thoughts about the past and the future; I wanted 
him to acknowledge that the present was a disaster. Phrases like 'tolerant 
civil society' and 'liberal democratic culture' did not inspire me in 
Baghdad in the summer of 2003. They sounded abstract and glib amid the 
daily grinding chaos of the city, and they made me angry at him and myself 
-- for I had had my own illusions."

By the end of the book, Packer seems to have come to terms with Makiya's 
doomed idealism: The book closes with the exile's ambiguous 
self-description: "I think it was Ahmad who once said of me that I 
represent the triumph of hope over experience."

Of course, urging war on the basis of a foolish hope is more excusable 
coming from Kanan Makiya than it is from an American. Iraq is not our 
country, and while it may be true that we are all our brothers' keepers, 
only the most internationalist of altruists would demand that a nation 
sacrifice its own interests for the sake of an oppressed foreign country. 
Although at times Packer seems close to being that kind of altruist, he 
also believes -- or at least believed -- not only that invading Iraq was 
the right thing to do for the Iraqi people, but also that it was in 
America's own interests. To understand his thinking, we must examine the 
ideas of Paul Berman, echoes of whose ideas can be found in "The Assassins' 

Packer recounts how he came to know Berman. "[E]xtraordinary times call for 
new thinking. Searching for a compass through the era just begun, I was 
drawn to people who thought boldly. One of them was the writer Paul Berman, 
who was working out a theory about what was now being called the war on 
terrorism." Berman was Packer's neighbor in Brooklyn, and Packer would meet 
with Berman over late-night dinners at a neighborhood bistro, where the 
older man would expound on his ideas.

Berman was immersed in the work of the seminal Islamist thinker Sayyid 
Qutb. "Qutb's ideas confirmed the theory that Berman had begun to develop, 
which was this: The young Arab men who had steered those four airplanes to 
apocalyptic death were not products of an alien world. They weren't driven 
by Muslim tradition, or Third World poverty, or the clash of civilizations, 
or Western imperialism. They were modern, and the ideology that held them 
and millions of others across the Islamic world in its ecstatic grip had 
been produced by the modern world -- in fact, by the West. It was the same 
nihilistic fantasy of revolutionary power and mass slaughter that, in the 
last century, drove Germans and Italians and Spaniards and Russians (and 
millions of others across the world) to similar acts of apocalyptic death. 
This ideology had a name: totalitarianism."

Packer writes that he was drawn to the fierce intensity of Berman's 
intellectual quest and found his ideas compelling. "I listened, 
occasionally asking a skeptical question, admiring the dedication of his 
project (who else was really trying to figure this stuff out?), mostly 
sympathizing -- but also worrying about Berman's tendency toward sweeping, 
distinction-erasing intellectual moves. What, for example, did his theory 
have to do with Iraq?" The answer Berman gave was simple. Both Islamism and 
Saddam's Stalinist state were totalitarian, implacably opposed to liberal 
societies, to freedom itself, and so they had to be opposed just as Hitler 
and Stalin had to be opposed.

"He was responding viscerally to the event (our late-night talks kept 
coming back to the scale of destruction just across the East River, 
shocking evidence of the Islamists' ambition) and also at an extremely high 
level of abstraction, where details become specks," writes Packer in "The 
Assassins' Gate." This passage foreshadows what Packer was soon to 
discover: that Berman's grand ideas would not survive contact with Iraq. 
(It would have been more accurate if Packer had substituted the word 
"reality" for "details.") But at the time Berman and Packer were discussing 
these ideas -- late 2002 and early 2003 -- he subscribed to them.

In 2003 Packer edited "The Fight Is for Democracy," a collection of essays 
by contrarian liberals, including Berman, many of them pro-war. In his 
introduction, Packer called for a "vibrant, hardheaded liberalism" that is 
willing to embrace the use of American military power and that stands up 
unapologetically for democratic values. The key test of this "vibrant 
liberalism" was the coming war in Iraq. For Packer, as for Berman, Iraq was 
the first front in a noble and necessary war between democracy and an 
absolute ideology of control and death.

"The fight against political Islam isn't a clash of civilizations, and it 
isn't an imperialist campaign," noted Packer in "The Fight Is for 
Democracy." "As Paul Berman writes, it is a conflict of ideologies and they 
come down to the century-old struggle between totalitarianism and liberal 
democracy." The key concept here is the seemingly innocuous expression 
"political Islam." Like Christopher Hitchens' neologism, "Islamofascism," 
what this phrase did was allow Packer and Berman to lump al-Qaida and 
Saddam Hussein together as part of the same threat -- an obviously 
important move if one is trying to justify invading Iraq, which had no 
actual connection to al-Qaida.

Berman's convoluted attempt to connect Saddam's secular Baath Party and the 
Islamist al-Qaida is a feat worthy of a medieval schoolman. But at bottom, 
it is simply a fancier version of the justification for war put forward by 
another liberal hawk, Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman also advocated toppling 
Saddam, but not because of some supposed ideological or historical 
connection between Baathism and Islamism. His argument was more 
straightforward: A "terrorism bubble" had built up in the Arab world, and 
it needed to be popped. As a convenient evil tyrant, Saddam simply offered 
a good opportunity for the United States to smash the Arab world in the 
face and teach it a lesson. Neither Friedman nor Berman ever explained 
exactly how smashing the Arab world in the face was going to turn it away 
from Islamist radicalism, or why the dubious attempt to install democracy 
by force in a fractured, wounded land with a bitter experience of colonial 
rule was worth risking thousands of American lives for. But intoxicated by 
what he with typical self-critical honesty called "the first sip of this 
drink called humanitarian intervention," and fastidiously put off by what 
he perceived as the crudeness of the antiwar movement, Packer signed on for 
the crusade.

It is scarcely necessary to point out that history has not been kind to the 
ideas of the liberal hawks. The Arab world, far from falling on its knees 
in "awe" before American might, as neocon analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht 
predicted, hates us more than ever. The terror bubble has not been popped: 
In fact, the Iraq invasion has only increased the danger of terror attacks, 
according to numerous studies. (And not just studies: The postwar terror 
attacks in London, Madrid and Bali hardly support the 
bomb-'em-to-their-knees argument.) And as for the Iraqi people, so far the 
war has arguably brought them even greater misery than they experienced 
under Saddam, at least over an equal period of time. Packer writes in "The 
Assassins' Gate" that "no Iraqi I knew" ever said things were better under 
Saddam, but Anthony Shadid talked to several Iraqis who said exactly that 
-- and that was before the situation in Iraq got even worse. To be sure, in 
the long run the war may prove to have improved their lot. But if a civil 
war breaks out -- if it has not already done so -- even the humanitarian 
moral scales will tip irrevocably against the invasion.

Packer presumably knows all this, but he refuses to admit that the idea of 
invading Iraq was wrong -- only the execution. "Since America's fate is now 
tied to Iraq's, it might be years or even decades before the wisdom of the 
war can finally be judged," Packer writes. "The Iraq War was always 
winnable; it still is." In other words, it is too soon to say if our 
national interest has been harmed by the war. Even taking a long historical 
view, this seems untenably optimistic. For the reasons listed above, and 
many others -- the damage done to our civil society by a war based on lies 
not least of them -- the Iraq war has been a debacle probably without 
precedent in our history. The Iraqi people may eventually find their lot 
improved, although that is far from certain. But to argue that the invasion 
could still prove to have been in our interests, that we can still "win" 
it, is to ascend into the realm of futurist fantasy, like arguing that the 
Vietnam War could still prove to be a good idea.

Packer's support for the war is inseparable from his critique of the 
antiwar movement, and contemporary liberalism in general. He dismisses 
antiwar protests as naive: "The protesters saw themselves as defending 
Iraqis from the terrible fate that the United States was prepared to 
inflict on them. Why would Iraqis want war? The movement's assumptions were 
based on moral innocence -- on an inability to imagine the horror in which 
Iraqis lived, and a desire for all good things to go together, for total 
vindication. War is evil; therefore, the prevention of war must be good."

Packer is not completely wrong about the moral innocence, and political 
naiveté, of much of the antiwar movement. But his characterization of it is 
surprisingly reductive. In his haste to reject liberal realist arguments as 
"cautious" and "soft-headed," Packer never engages with the robust body of 
morally engaged liberals and leftists who opposed both Saddam and the war 
on powerful realist grounds. He fails to address the arguments made by 
thinkers like Mark Danner, Tony Judt, Brian Urquhart and many others, 
hardheaded arguments that were made immediately after 9/11 and that found 
their home in the New York Review of Books, the pages of this journal and 
many other places. A corollary is that he fails to grasp the importance of 
historical context. About Arab or Muslim grievances, in particular the U.S. 
support for despotic Arab regimes and the crucial Israeli-Palestinian 
conflict, he has almost nothing to say.

The truth is that many opponents of the war knew perfectly well how 
dreadful Saddam was, but opposed the war not out of moral innocence but 
because it was too risky for both the United States and for the Iraqi 
people, because it was illegal, and because it was being waged by George W. 

And also because war is evil. Yes, sometimes wars must be fought. The 
battle for the freedom of humankind against the Axis, the humanitarian 
interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia, the self-defensive strike against the 
Taliban -- those were all justified wars. But Kosovo is not Iraq, and 
Saddam Hussein was no Hitler. The pages of the newspapers for the last two 
and a half years prove it: War itself is a terrible thing, and making war 
is almost always a sign of total failure, the ultimate defeat of the human 
spirit. Good intentions do not matter. William S. Burroughs' cautionary 
words to those contemplating shooting heroin -- "Look down LOOK DOWN along 
that junk road before you travel there" -- also apply to those who would 
make war. Packer and his fellow liberal hawks did not look far enough.

In the end, however, Packer's support for the war, and his failure to 
engage with the most compelling arguments against it, fade in comparison to 
his achievements. What matters is that he has given us a remarkable history 
of the Iraq war, a work of keen analysis, superb reporting and deep 
compassion. "The Assassins' Gate" is required reading for anyone who wants 
to understand the terrible predicament in which we now find ourselves, how 
we got there, and why we must not repeat the same tragic mistake.

-- By Gary Kamiya



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