Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Review The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 

George Packer of the New Yorker wrote The Assassins’ Gate, American In Iraq in an attempt to explain the ideas behind the 2003 U.S. invasion, and how they came undone. He begins with Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya and the neoconservatives who argued for creating a democratic Iraq using American military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He then explains all the problems America faced when it occupied Iraq starting with the fact that it had no strategy and quickly lost the trust of Iraqis. Packer was a believer in the war having been won over by Makiya’s conviction. Afterward however he became disillusioned feeling that no one from the Americans to the Iraqi exiles really wanted Iraq to succeed.  
Iraqi exiles like Kanan Makiya and American neoconservatives were some of the leading advocates of regime change in Iraq and Packer wanted to explore their ideology. Makiya wrote several books about Iraq including The Republic of Fear about the repression of the Baath Party, and became a friend of the author. The two spent plenty of time together where Makiya argued that the Iraqi people were ready for change. He believed the country was still middle class like it was in the 1970s and would embrace a representative government and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Makiya was also a member of the Iraqi National Congress which had extensive ties with neoconservatives. Packer was also one of the few to go into some depth into the that group. Neoconservatives included a range of ideas, but the main one that united them was that America’s influence should be expanded around the world via military power. Some like Douglas Feith who became the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under President Bush and Richard Perle who was on the Defense Policy Board under Donald Rumsfeld argued that removing Saddam could transform the entire Middle East and help Israel specifically. Others like Paul Wolfowitz who was the Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration and historian and think tanker Robert Kagan pushed for the United States to use its power to expand democracy globally. That’s how they were aligned with Makiya and helped convince President Bush one goal of the Iraq war should be a democratic Iraq. Packer didn’t really deal with the Iraq WMD case or its alleged ties with Al Qaeda. Instead, he wanted to know what ideas motivated the invasion, and that was the belief that everyone wanted democracy. For Makiya this came out of his embrace of the Enlightenment that championed knowledge, progress and liberty. The neoconservatives were shaped by the Cold War where America wanted to rollback communism and spread democracy. Packer was won over by this argument, especially due to his days spent with Makiya. The author was moved by The Republic Of Fear and thought overthrowing the Saddam dictatorship and offering freedom to Iraqis was a noble cause. There were several problems with this however. First, Packer didn’t take the time to find out what was happening in pre-invasion Iraq. If he did he would know that the once prosperous and developing country had been destroyed by two wars and sanctions. If he knew the nation’s middle class was holding on for dear life would he have believed they could be the basis for a new Iraq? Second, he noted early on that the Iraqi National Congress didn’t act democratically with other opposition groups. Instead it tried to dominate every meeting and exclude others. Makiya might have had grand ideas, but his group didn’t seem to follow them in practice. Last, Packer didn’t deal with whether bringing democracy at the barrel of a gun would work. In the end, the book acknowledged that Makiya and the neoconservatives were both dreamers, and the author got caught up in their idealism. 

The second part of The Assassins’ Gate dealt with how the Iraq war didn’t live up to the ideals of its advocates. Packer started off with the failure of the Bush administration to plan for postwar Iraq. That meant the two groups the U.S. created to run Iraq the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had to mostly make do on the fly and even ignored some of the planning that went on beforehand.  The CPA then made catastrophic decisions like deBaathification and disbanding the military which destroyed institutions, angered many Iraqis and helped lead to the insurgency. It also failed at replacing those bodies like effectively creating a new security force for the country. Packer was also angered by the debate back in Washington where the Republicans refused to admit they’d done anything wrong, while the Democrats only cared about saying how the Republicans had failed. Neither seemed interested in making Iraq work. Packer then went around to different parts of Iraq to see what the population was feeling. He met a man who wanted U.S. funding for a therapy group that would help Iraqis overcome the trauma from living under a dictatorship. He talked with a sheikh who complained that America was a superpower but couldn’t provide power, electricity or an Iraqi government. He befriended a young girl who was brimming at the idea of a new Iraq, but found society still too constraining for women. The author went to Kirkuk and talked with Arabs, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen who all laid claim to the city but few of which were willing to share it. There were huge crowds of people outside the U.S. compound in Baghdad called the Green Zone attempting to voice their demands and complaints, but barely any of them could ever get in. In comparison, many Iraqi exiles came to Iraq seeking power and wealth and had easy access to the Americans and gained contracts and positions. What he found was many Iraqis were caught up in the past. Old wounds and complaints that were suppressed under Saddam were now coming to the fore. Others were angered at the Americans. Many exiles were taking advantage of the situation. In a nutshell Iraq did not turn out how Makiya and the neoconservatives thought it would. The problems stated with the White House that was so consumed with getting rid of Saddam it never took the time to come up with a strategy on how to achieve the peace after the war. Chaos erupted after the fall of the regime and the Americans actually added to it. The Bush administration was also impervious to criticism and always thought it was right. Iraqis also proved far different and more complicated than the war supporters envisioned them. Some wanted to settle scores, some were angry at the occupation, some were ready for change but found tradition a barrier, etc. Iraq seemed to atomize and was unable to bring itself together made worse by the mistakes made by the Americans, and the overall lack of leadership.  

The Assassin’s Gate is an interesting read. George Packer believed in the war and the cause of democracy and was deeply disappointed with how things turned out. He did a good job laying out the arguments for creating a new Iraq. At the same time he failed to learn about the country itself beforehand other than reading Kanan Makiya’s books which advocated for his position. After the invasion Packer travelled to Iraq several times and tried to learn not only what the Americans were doing, but what Iraqis were up to as well. That was a very important because many westerners simply focused upon the elites or Coalition soldiers. What the author found was a rudderless U.S. occupation making mistake after mistake and a deeply divided Iraq. He still wanted Iraq to be a success but he felt like everyone failed. 


Anonymous said...

Good Review! I finally picked it up off my shelf and look forward to finishing it.

Joel Wing said...

If's one of the good early books about Iraq and noteworthy because he actually talked to Iraqis instead of just sticking with the Americans.

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