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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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 “Night 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 out.”
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 war.’”
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 “Night 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 war.
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’ Gate.”
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. Bush.
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.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)