“War is a perpetual struggle with embarrassments.”

—Colmar von der Goltz

The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq

by George Packer

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 480 pp., $26.00

George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate aptly exposes the incompetence of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq.  The author 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.  Yet it 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.

Packer delves below the surface to explore the origin of White House policies that have been roundly criticized.  For example, many independent analysts have faulted the Bush administration for its insufficient deployment of ground troops to Iraq and sketchy military planning for the postwar occupation.  According to Packer, the government intended to lop off, after the invasion, the top layer only of the Iraqi army and bureaucracy; install Iraqi exiles at the highest levels of a new, fully functioning state; significantly draw down U.S. forces within six months; and use Iraqi oil revenues to pay for all of this.  Packer claims that rosy predictions of an early military withdrawal, the military’s reluctance to engage in nation building, and the administration’s suppression of any hint of possible postwar complications that might erode support for the invasion in the first place all contributed to insufficient postwar planning.  On the last issue, the White House refused to use the “Desert Crossing” plan created by Gen. Anthony Zinni, a previous head of the Central Command who was skeptical of the invasion, because administration officials considered the plan’s assumptions too negative.

Packer alleges that the U.S. military’s urge to exit Iraq quickly made it reluctant to impose martial law to stop the looting in the aftermath of the invasion; unchecked looting emboldened an Iraqi insurgency that was beginning to challenge the U.S. occupation.  Although many conservatives have been fairly criticized for supporting the U.S. government’s restructuring of societies abroad while opposing government activism at home, more liberal Democrats (including George Packer) have advocated the application of martial law in overseas nation building—a tactic they would resist being imposed on Americans at home.

According to Packer, the plan to remove only the top tier of the Iraqi military and bureaucracy was reversed without much analysis by Paul Bremer, the second American administrator in the Coalition Provisional Authority.  Though Packer holds Bremer responsible for many bad decisions, this proved to be a particularly fateful one.  Dissolving the Iraqi military and tossing out Ba’athists as far down as the middle levels of government threw away much expertise, while creating enemies capable of making things very difficult for the United States in Iraq.  Washington’s entire strategy for exiting Iraq now rests on training new security forces to replace those disbanded by Paul Bremer.

Packer notes that Bremer based the Iraqi occupation—the most complex attempt at nation building the United States has undertaken since the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after World War II—on these two policies.  The problem is that Iraq, unlike Japan and Germany, was not totally destroyed and exhausted by war, did not have a First World industrial economy, had no experience with democracy, and, above all, was not a unified and cohesive society.  Hence, the Bremer administration’s reliance on misguided strategy was, in fact, just another nail in the coffin of Washington’s massive social-engineering project.


The Assassins’ Gate explores other missteps in the implementation of that endeavor, citing the insistence by Sunni sheikhs that the insurgency was not inevitable.  In April 2003, the Anbar province, where the insurgency began, was ready to cooperate with the occupiers, the sheikhs argued.  Had the United States held her troops outside of Fallujah and Ramadi, no protests would have occurred, U.S. soldiers would not have fired on the crowds, and a retaliatory insurgency would not have arisen.  Though Packer concedes “a bit of truth to this account” (U.S. forces occupying these towns were trained for combat instead of urban peacekeeping and, hence, overreacted to provocation), he cites U.S. military sources as saying that U.S. occupiers received no support from these tribal leaders from the start.

He argues, too, that the Bush administration, despite its eagerness to proclaim “freedom” for the Iraqis, never developed the institutions needed to make political freedom a reality for fear of losing control of Iraq.  And Packer implies that Washington failed to pour money as rapidly as was necessary into Iraq’s reconstruction.  He cites Jerry Silverman, a former official with the Agency for International Development who worked both in wartime Vietnam and in Iraq during the occupation, as saying that, though aid failed to buy political support for the United States in Vietnam, it might have done so in Iraq had security been established sooner.  This hypothetical reversal of effect seems a dubious proposition.  Moreover, security is what the United States has been trying to buy with aid.

In addition to keeping experts on Iraq and the Middle East at a distance, Bremer held off the Iraqis themselves.  According to The Assassins’ Gate, the Coalition Provisional Authority was kept inaccessible to the Iraqi people for security reasons.  Owing to the dangers beyond, many in the U.S. occupation remain inside the fortified Green Zone and make few trips into the rest of Iraq to acquaint themselves with the Iraqi people and their problems.  This reduces U.S. casualties, which helps out with public opinion back home but does nothing to win the “hearts and minds” of the local people.  And Packer quotes Silverman again as concluding that, unlike U.S. military and civilian personnel who served in Vietnam, those in Iraq are unwilling to accept the casualties needed to secure the cities and highways in order to give reconstruction a chance to succeed: “Our troops are in force-protection mode.  They don’t protect anyone else.”

Force protection as priority number one is nothing new—for example, in Lebanon in the early 1980’s; Somalia (1993); the Bosnian peacekeeping mission (1995 and thereafter); and the war in Kosovo (1999).  That the United States would commit her Armed Forces to a mission and then worry more about force protection than accomplishment of the mission is the result of the unwillingness of the American public fully to support its elected leaders’ wars of choice.  Often, the public will give the president the benefit of the doubt by supporting his initial decision to deploy troops overseas.  But if the mission is not truly vital to U.S. security and victory is not swift, casualties mount, or the action goes wrong, public support erodes quickly.  Contrast this attitude with the public’s acceptance of mass casualties in World War II in fighting a conflict that was perceived as vital to the nation’s survival.  One might think that the American public’s justifiable aversion to casualties in wars of choice would make the nation’s leaders cautious in committing military forces to conflicts that do not threaten America’s vital interests.  Nevertheless, once it became apparent that the Ba’athists—knowing that they could not defeat the most powerful military in world history on a conventional battlefield—had planned a guerrilla war in advance, it was only a matter of time before public support for the war eroded.

Although Packer does an excellent job of exposing the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq, he avoids the larger question of whether restructuring entire societies at gunpoint is an overly ambitious task for any government to undertake.  Although not impressed with John Kerry, Packer essentially endorses the view of the 2004 Kerry campaign that success in Iraq could have been achieved by making the effort more international and bipartisan.

Packer acknowledges that, as early as the summer of 2003, he recognized U.S. policy in Iraq to have failed and that he had entertained his own illusions as to what could be accomplished there.  Although he rejects Paul Berman’s comparison of Iraq, post-invasion, to postcommunist Prague in 1989, he admits to having had a naive belief in the possibilities for a “political and cultural flowering” in a post-Saddam era.  Packer adds, however, that, although the Bush administration emphasized the democratization of Iraq and the Middle East only after all its other justifications for the invasion had evaporated, the argument has to be taken seriously.


That is difficult to do, however, because the administration never seemed to take that rationale seriously.  Even George Packer admits that the White House’s original strategy was to “install the exiles and get out.”  Bremer’s initial seven-step plan toward Iraqi self-sufficiency hardly seemed very democratic, and neither did the caucus system that replaced it.  Only Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was heard to demand a democratic election, which he knew that his candidates would likely win.  And American officials called off local elections that they knew would not produce the desired result and closed a Shiite newspaper that helped trigger a massive Shiite rebellion.

Only after the initial plan fell through did the administration decide to create a mirror image of the United States in Mesopotamia—a federal republic complete with a stock market and a public television network that no one watched.  Even neoconservative Max Boot, a fervent advocate of military force for the purpose of nation building, admits that the history of such endeavors has been “mixed.”  (Others would say abysmal.)  Any expert would have advised that the political cooperation needed for a U.S.-style federation in Iraq would have been hard to achieve, given the rancorous ethnic and religious factionalism pulling the country in different directions.  As noted earlier, Iraq is not post-World War II Japan or Germany, and the Iraqis were not as favorable to U.S. social-engineering plans for their society.  A U.N. official, quoted by Packer, succinctly summarizes the view of many Iraqis: “They’re under occupation.  They’re not happy about it.”

George Packer is against partition of Iraq.  But, with all factions supporting well-armed militias and the U.S. military unwilling to disarm them, Iraq already suffered partition de facto.  The Kurds and Shiites, both possessing oil wealth, are each already trying to go their own way.  Iraq appears destined for formal partition, either by peaceful means or after a bloody civil war.  The latter has probably already started.