Bush in Babylon – a book review
By George Epp
Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
How much do you and I know about Iraq, it’s history and culture? How much did George Bush, his Vice-president Dick Cheney, his Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld know about Iraq’s history and culture before they launched their war to unseat Saddam Hussein? Did they have sufficient grasp of the fact that Iraq was like a container of tightly coiled springs that were liable to unwind explosively if any of the balance-of-the-whole were disturbed? Did they anticipate that insurrection and terrorism would be as significant a factor in post-Saddam Iraq as it has turned out to be? Did they appreciate how extensive a post-Saddam nation building project would be required, and did they have plans in readiness to ensure security until a new and acceptable regime could be established, exercising the functions that democracies require?
According to George Packer, the planning for the invasion of Iraq went as far as the “shock and awe” of Saddam’s demise, and no further. Central to his observations are the bungled opportunities to win over a populace that could go either way after the overthrow of the Baath Party. In fact, Packer’s central thesis could be summed up in the words of Brad Swanson, whom Packer quotes:
First there was the arrogance phase, and then there was the hubris phase. The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, underplanned, underresourced, skim off the top layer of leadership, take control of a functioning state, and be out by six weeks and get the oil funds to pay for it. We all know for a variety of reasons that didn’t work. So then you switch over to the hubris phase. We’ve been slapped in the face, this is really much more serious than we thought, much more long-term, much more dangerous, much more costly. Therefore we’ll attack it with everything we have, we’ll throw the many billion dollars at it, and to make Iraq safe for the future we have to do a root-and-branch transformation of the country in our own image.” (186)
Will this be history’s assessment of the war in Iraq? No doubt, there are less ascerbic analyses, but the news these days supports Packer’s view that the war began as the culmination of a vision held for some time in a small, neocon group in the USA, and that George W. Bush was sold on this vision by people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others, and that the perpetrators have been in complete denial for the past three years as the project unraveled and their goals didn’t materialize.
George Packer has spent much time with the principals in the war, both American and Iraqi. He records the views, dreams and disappointments of the Kurds, the Shiia, the Sunni minority, and it soon becomes clear to the reader that there was much more to consider in democratizing Iraq than the simple overthrow of the Baath Party regime. Released suddenly from the tyrannical rule to which they had become accustomed, Iraqis seemed unable to take initiative without being told exactly what to do, and American troops had no idea what they should be telling them. L. Paul Bremer was put in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority and appears to have done his level best to kick-start the planning of reconstruction, but by then it was a matter of too little, too late. Too much time had passed without noticeable progress in reconstruction, and disillusioned Iraqis of all stripes lost confidence in renewal and the cycle of insurgency began.
The CPA was, of course, disbanded after elections in Iraq and currently there are 1040 reconstruction projects underway and 590 planned but not started (http://www.sigir.mil/sectors/Default.aspx). Reports to congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) paint a picture of organized, steady progress toward the rebuilding of Iraq, but the bloodshed goes on. Does the Coalition in Iraq have the time or the fortitude to complete the job that has now, finally, been accepted as being necessary? Drawing on the testimony of Drew Erdmann – formerly working in the CPA and chief advisor to the Iraqi ministry – Packer remains mildly optimistic on this point:
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. Fort this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive (448).
The Assassins’ Gate takes its place among a raft of books on the subject of America’s adventure in Middle East democratization. A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts was published in 2004 but tells a similar story. Both books are written by respected journalists who spent a great deal of time in Iraq. Both are well-written, highly readable accounts of their authors’ experiences.
Of course, we now have another year or two behind us since either of the above books were released, and we’ve witnessed an election in which the Democratic Party replaced the Republican in control of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Americans are increasingly realizing that the war in Iraq has long since turned into a fiasco that could have been averted. I was halfway through The Assassins’ Gate when I watched the president announce the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld seemed almost jubilant as he feigned a golf swing, and I wondered if he wasn’t enormously relieved that his complicity in creating the Iraq debacle might well be forgotten before it got any worse and others became the foci of attention.
The most wrenching chapter in The Assassins’ Gate is called “Memorial Day.” It’s the story of an American father mourning the loss of his son to a chance piece of flying shrapnel shortly after arriving for duty in Iraq. The father’s agony underlines the possibility that many deaths of brave and/or innocent people served no discernable purpose. This may end up being the most devastating aspect of this war to Americans generally, namely that a misguided leadership led them into a war that achieved nothing worthwhile. Only time will tell whether or not America will have to face up to the same realization of futility that accompanied their military’s ignominious departure from Vietnam.
A note: If you are unprepared to read Packer’s 400+ page book, I suggest you tap into http://newyorker.com/printable/?fact/031124fa_fact1. Here you’ll be able to print off and read a 29-page essay called “War After the War.”
© George Epp, 2006