While it was gratifying to see you take note of George Packer’s important book The Assassins’ Gate, Ivan Eland’s tepid review (May) gives only grudging praise to perhaps the most incisive reportage so far of our involvement in Iraq.

Packer’s book is not, as Eland suggests, merely an exposé of the Bush administration’s incompetence.  It is a careful, comprehensive panorama of the perverse human chemistry created by any misguided, isolated bureaucracy seeking empire and plunder in a foreign land under a banner of lofty ideals.  It also documents, by detailed reporting, the bunker-like, group-think mentality of the architects of the continuing delusional “regime change” efforts aimed at Israel’s remaining adjacent enemies.

Essentially unacknowledged by Dr. Eland, however, is Packer’s singular skill in placing so much “red meat” reporting in a dramatic perspective readers can easily grasp and enjoy.

Packer records several revealing quotations from the War Party’s leadership.  Take, for example, the reaction of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad’s rising chaos in 2003: “Stuff happens.”  Or President Bush’s aside to departing CPA nation-rebuilder Jay Garner a scant two months after the night of “shock and awe”: “You want to do Iran for the next one?”  Or CPA officials in Baghdad carping about incessant “long-range tinkering” from Washington bureaucrats wielding “the 8,000-mile screwdriver.”  Or Caspar Weinberger’s testimony before Congress in 2002 that “even chaos would be better than Saddam.”  Or Kanan Makia, an idealistic Chalabi exile counterpart, boasting proudly in the run-up to the war: “We have the support of those arch-warmongers Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary Rumsfeld, and the vice president’s office,” with Packer adding that war “fever induced a surge of testosterone in lifelong noncombatants who had suddenly discovered their inner Churchill.”

Packer notes that, in mid-2005, Vice President Cheney announced, as he had “a year and a half before,” that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”  And Douglas Feith, a Perle/Wolfowitz creature, declared, when leaving his post at the Pentagon, “that the Bush administration had never wanted to impose American values in Iraq . . . ”

Packer steps out of his role as reporter only to draw an historian’s logical conclusions from what he hears, sees, and feels.  And he is as absorbent gathering opinion in Iraqi houses and on Iraqi streets as he is in Baghdad’s CPA headquarters.  Eland writes as if Packer is slightly less than believable, making use of such words and phrases as “[Packer] implies,” “claims,” “notes,” “according to Packer.”  These sniffy locutions belittle the scrutiny Packer focuses on what’s really happening.  “Packer holds Bremer responsible for many bad decisions,” opines Eland, yet the author’s extensive portrait of Bremer, his background (manager of Henry Kissinger’s consultancy), and his cronies (especially law-school buddy Michael Mobbs, who starts handing out the billions) demonstrates the terrible hubris of Bremer’s fatal decisions.  “When Bremer arrived,” notes one returned Iraqi exile mordantly, “the electricity was eighteen hours a day.  Then it started going down.”

Packer’s book would be invaluable for just two chapters, “Special Plans” and “Exiles,” which catalogue the cronyism so emblematic of the neocon network disseminating misinformation in think tanks, academe, government, and media—much of it “stovepiped” to the Oval office from Richard Perle’s Office of Special Plans, which is run by Feith and Cheney protégé William Luti.  Packer impressively documents the ideological and ethnic roots of the Iraq debacle, which has duped a nation.

In an Epilogue, Packer clearly states where he stands: “I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence.  Swaddled in abstract ideas, 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.  The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is.  For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.”

Agree or disagree, this is the book to read to find out where the bodies are buried and why the closets are crammed with skeletons.  Judging from Dr. Eland’s review, you’d hardly know that.

        —S.K. Oberbeck
Sanibel, FL

Dr. Eland Replies:

S.K. Oberbeck deems my review “tepid” and accuses me of giving only “grudging praise” to Packer.   Yet the first sentence of the review reads, “George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq aptly exposes the incompetence of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq.”

Oberbeck also makes another accusation: “Essentially unacknowledged by Dr. Eland, however, is Packer’s singular skill in placing so much ‘red meat’ reporting in a dramatic perspective readers can easily grasp and enjoy.”  Yet in the second and third sentences of the review, I clearly state that “[Packer] has traveled to Iraq many times to talk to leading Iraqis, their not-so-prominent fellow citizens, and U.S. policymakers.  The book makes for interesting reading partly because Packer uses the experiences of ordinary Iraqis to illustrate the ineptitude of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.”

“Red meat” is what Mr. Oberbeck wanted, but apparently he did not get enough to satisfy his Bush-hating salivation.  Mr. Oberbeck’s letter indicts the Bush administration for “seeking empire and plunder in a foreign land,” refers to the Republican Party as the “War Party,” and accuses Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld of being “arch-warmongers.”  Such turbocharged rhetoric resembles that used by Marxists and should not be used in a serious analysis of any topic.

My review of Packer’s book was largely favorable.  If I wasn’t jumping up and down in my praise of the book (and I did praise it), the rest of the first paragraph of the review speaks to my concern: “[The book] falters in implying that a more competent administration could have been more successful in the Herculean task of restructuring an entire society’s political, economic, and social system.”