‘Assassins’ Gate’ answers questions about Iraq

The results of the mid-term elections, viewed by many as a referendum on the war in Iraq, left no doubt – if any remained – of the importance of Iraq in the minds of many Americans, who continue to seek answers to fundamental questions about the war.

George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate is a critical chronicle of the months leading to war and the post-invasion years in Iraq. But unlike other studies of the war in Iraq that examine either the prewar political climate or the deterioration of post-invasion Iraq, Packer’s work follows the story from the initial planning stages to the outbreak of civil war, shedding light on the complex answers to two fundamental questions: “Why did we go?” and “What went wrong?”

Packer ultimately traces the “why” of the war to a group of neoconservatives who kept the idea of an aggressive, interventionist American foreign policy alive in the post-Reagan years and found Sept. 11 to be the galvanizing force they needed to re-implement it. Answering the question of “What went wrong?,” Packer, like other authors, blames the disaster in Iraq on the Bush administration’s monumental lack of foresight and refusal to adjust to the reality of the situation on the ground.

“Even as it prepared to take over a foreign country, the administration remained hopelessly at war with itself,” Packer wrote. “No one in charge was asking the most basic question: What will we do if it all goes wrong?”

Packer’s articles on Iraq for the New Yorker in the two years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq form the core of his penetrating look into American involvement in Iraq, but his book delves deeper than his magazine work.

It provides a sweeping look at the war in Iraq in its entirety: the large, abstract neoconservative ideologies about America’s role in the world; the fatal miscalculations and general bungling of the rebuilding effort by the Bush administration; and a probing look at the psychology of the Iraqi people, their fractiousness and ambivalence toward the double-edged sword of American liberation and occupation, and the crippling effects that years under a repressive and dictatorial regime had on their ability to lead and govern themselves.

It is Packer’s gift for storytelling – for revealing larger truths about American involvement in Iraq through the firsthand accounts of Iraqi citizens, American soldiers and government officials – that makes his work so remarkable.

Throughout much of the book, Packer refrains from judgement, eschewing the role of scathing commentator for one of concerned observer, allowing the tales and words of those he met and interviewed to tell the story.

At some points, though, he can no longer restrain himself as he lashes out at those high in the administration: “Swaddled in abstract ideas,” he wrote, “convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong they found other people to blame.”

His lashings hold even more weight because Packer is no dovish partisan. Early in the book he describes his position of support for Iraq as one of reserved optimism. Although he disagreed with the rushed and unilateral manner America approached the invasion, he also wrote about his overall support for the mission: “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.”

His opinions are not a veiled attempt to play politics, but rather the culmination of his years as a reporter who slowly lost faith in Bush administration officials in the positions of highest responsibilty. Their arrogance and carelessness amounted to “criminal negligence,” Packer wrote.

At the end of The Assassins’ Gate, after recounting the tragic unraveling of the situation in Iraq, Packer wrote that “the Iraqi war was always winnable; it still is. For this reason, the recklessness of the authors is all the harder to forgive.”