The Assassins’ Gate: A Review

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First, let me make clear right away that this is not “Michael Moore does Iraq”.

George Packer has written here a post mortem (in 2005!) on our Iraqi quagmire; this is a book that everybody should read. It’s the bare minimum of reading one must do if you want to be taken seriously when discussing the Iraq War.

Packer is a journalist; he believes in democracy and he believes that Saddam should have been removed. He has little patience for those who suggest that Iraq would have been better off if we had simply let Saddam alone. He claims that he narrowly supported the invasion during the run-up in 2001/2/3. He rejects comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam.

It’s as close to an unbiased book on Iraq as you are going to get.

This only increases its importance and relevance. Packer opens with a fascinating discussion on the intellectual history of neoconservativism, the mindset/view of foreign policy that got us into this mess. Neoconservatism is an “activist” US foreign policy, which one can associate as in the tradition of Wilsonian democracy. The common theme is the whole Manifest Destiny/City on a Hill idea mixed with unparalleled military might. The difference is the intellectual history which makes it profoundly different then Wilson’s rather naive attempts at democracy and world peace.

The hallmarks of Neoconservativism, as one would expect from a product of the Cold War, are a fanatical faith in the power of the US military and the righteousness of the US. It sees the world in two camps: the US as a beacon of democracy and free enterprise, and the Forces of Darkness (everyone else). Here is the history. WWII drives a huge number of Jewish intellectuals to the United States. For many of them, the lesson is the complete moral failure of appeasement, and the beneficent power of the US. The most well known of these is Leo Strauss, who famously claimed to find hidden, esoteric truths in the writings of the ancient Greeks.

It’s the students of these intellectuals that would go on to be our neocons today. The shaping experience is Vietnam: their reaction amounts to “we didn’t try hard enough”. It’s an angry young man’s angry and confused response to the ’60’s and ’70s informed by an elitist, Struassian worldview. The disasters of the Iranian Revolution and the Carter Administration they blame on our “weakness” in Vietnam. This war leaves a deeply traumatic scar on the American psyche; the top US brass say to themselves “never again will we become embroiled in anti-insurgency “national building”, many Americans perceive the limits of US power, as well as the haunting spectre-ish realisation that we may not always be the good guy.

It’s the Gulf War that both re-legitimizes American power and international beneficence. It sets the stage for the 2003 invasion. The Gulf War does much to wash away the stain of Vietnam. The American government, especially the elite, conservative neocons – most specifically here Paul Wolfowitz – get Iraq on the brain. Wolfowitz, Jewish in heritage, with links to the Israeli Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu (militaristic, conservative) sees Iraq as the ideal test bed for the neocon vision of the world.

This is the idea: remove Saddam from power (probably by some sort of commando action, rather than invasion) and replace him with either the old Iraq royal family or institute a democracy. The idea here is that Iraq becomes a beacon of Arab modernity and democracy; the implicit idea is to draw pressure away from Israel, part of the logic being that democracies do not go to war against each other.

It’s a fantasy. It’s the idea that “Scratch an Iraqi, and you will find an American”.

Skip ahead to September 12th, 2001. Bush was pretty explicitly a “domestic” president who had little interest in international affairs and rejected the foreign interventions of the Clinton Administration. He casts about for a way to view the Middle East; a paradigm. It’s the paradigm of his high officials: neoconservativism. Packer proves that within days of 9/11, the Bush Administration was pretty much set on invading Iraq.

The stark truth is the that we invaded Iraq because of an idea: the legacy of WWII, Vietnam and the Gulf War mixed with American domestic politics.

Packer does a remarkable job sharing the human interest side of the war. The personalities of Iraq expats and exiles dreaming of a glorious return; Bush era government officials wrapped up in office politics, US soldiers genuinely motivated to bring democracy; and a kaleidoscope of Iraqis struggling to make sense of what was happening to them.

The truth is that you can’t scratch an Iraqi to find an American underneath. The Baathist totalitarian regime had destroyed all of Iraq’s civil society; the Iraqis as individuals where unprepared psychologically for freedom. They didn’t know the script that the Bush Administration expected them to follow; thus the Bush Administration’s own ideology blinded them to the problems of invading Iraq.

The quagmire gets worse, in large part due to the Bush Administration’s refusal to face facts and take real action (as that would damage the American political scene’s support for the war). Packer brilliantly compares the wartime President Johnson, staying up to the early morning waiting for the casualty reports to come in from Vietnam – a man broken by an unwinable war that he had to preside over and President Bush’s invincible ignorance of the growing disaster that was the invasion of Iraq.

This book is a great mix of personal stories, critical reflection and history. The individuals we meet are treated with respect, but no one is fawned over either. It’s fair and tough in manner that deserves imitation. It almost makes me believe in journalism again.

I got quite worked up at several points during the reading – a manner of righteous outrage – and I am not ashamed to admit it. Perhaps the most astounding aspect is that nobody seemed to have learned a lesson or grown wiser. The Bush Administration officials simply blame each other; Iraqis blame the Americans, Americans blame the Iraqis or islamic extremism. Democrats, Republicans, even Packer himself seem unable to come to any manful conclusions. There is a lot of talk about “fevered minds” that borrows language that is akin to youthful misadventures about every aspect of the war which I found to be incredibly depressing.

 It is not until his afterword, written in 2006 that Packer really unloads on Bush and the inner cabal of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Powell. By that time, you feel it is richly deserved.

Everyone should read this book.

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