Conquest for Dummies

By Stan Persky | May 23, 2006

George Packer, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 467 pages, $36.50, 2005)

More than three years ago now, in March 2003, I was marching in the streets of downtown Vancouver, in the company of about 100,000-or-so like-minded people, to protest the impending American invasion of Iraq. Maybe “marching” puts it too strongly: it was more of a duty trudge, since the war was by then inevitable and most of us understood that our protestations were unlikely to have significant impact. In cities around the world, similar protest marches were taking place that Saturday morning. Even for those of us who “understood” — whether or not we approved of — the retaliatory American attack on the Taliban regime of Afghanistan in late 2001, in response to al-Qaeda’s slaughter of 3,000 civilians in the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, the upcoming war in Iraq, a year and a half later, was puzzling.

For one glaring thing, the proposed assault appeared to be out-and-out illegal. Rather than being a response to acts of aggression, the punitive expedition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was clearly a “pre-emptive” war, in defiance of international law and institutions. If the United States had been part of the International Court of Justice system (which it isn’t), the American architects of the war would be prospective defendents in the dock at the war crimes tribunals in The Hague. (By the way, the extended case on the illegality of the war is made, most recently and cogently, in Philippe Sands’ Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules, Penguin, 2006.)

Second, the claim that the anticipated war was justified by the possession of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that the Iraqi regime intended to use within the forseeable future was without substance, as was soon conclusively demonstrated. Iraq under Saddam was undoubtedly a totalitarian dictatorship, but hardly an imminent danger to its immediate neighbours, the U.S., or “world peace,” such as it is. It was a danger primarily to its own inhabitants, and even that threat had been somewhat curtailed. The country had, for a decade, ever since what is now known as the First Gulf War, been under United Nations’ economic sanctions, and was effectively hedged in militarily by “no-fly-zones” which covered large portions of Iraq, including the Kurdish north and the Shia Muslim south. Finally, and crucially, there was no evidence whatsoever that Iraq had connections with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda or with the “9/11” attack on the U.S., notwithstanding American propaganda to the contrary. What’s more, with the occupation of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban both appeared to be on the run. Why not nail down the situation there rather than embarking on a dubious new venture?

Misnomer for a Mirage

Currently, as the U.S. and President George W. Bush wallow in the fourth year of America’s war in/on Iraq (I notice nobody’s pooh-poohing the word “quagmire” any longer), the predictable day-to-day media focus gives us a combination of blood and spin. The bloodshed is caused by U.S. troops, an Iraqi “insurgency,” and Sunni and Shia factions engaged in a near civil war. Most of the spin is provided by an earnest George Bush who, on the recent anniversary of “Three Years… and Counting” (as one U.S. network headlined its coverage), crisscrossed the U.S. offering impassioned defences of his increasingly unpopular war policy before friendly, select audiences. Counterspin was provided by a half dozen former U.S. generals calling for the firing of failed American defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and as of the moment, attention is directed to a cobbled-together Iraqi government (which is still missing ministers for crucial posts, even after five months of squabbling and sectarian horse-trading).

But perhaps more germane than the day’s latest, solemnly-reported and always horrific, body count, suicide bombing, or occasional hostage rescue, is a deeper account of what in fact happened in Iraq since March-April 2003 when, in the first flush of military success, Bush triumphantly declared from the photo-op-staged deck of an American warship, “Mission Accomplished.” Understanding the neoconservative roots and incompetent course of the war is a better guide to what’s likely to happen next than the nightly, one-minute-forty-five-second, standard dispatch by a TV journalist cooped up in the occupation’s fortified “Green Zone,” unable these days to even directly “cover” the events in the deadly streets of Baghdad. That’s where New Yorker magazine writer George Packer comes in.

Packer’s Assassins’ Gate is his loosely-connected, but quite coherent, collection of reportage from Iraq and America. The “gate” of the title is a high sandstone ceremonial arch that provides a “main point of entry into the vast and heavily fortified Green Zone along the west bank of the Tigris River, from which the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) governs occupied Iraq.” When Packer first arrived in Baghdad in summer 2003, he mistook the arch for one of the city’s antique gates, built in medieval times to keep out would-be Persian invaders.

Later on, he learned that he’d been wrong about the Assassins’ Gate. Far from being an ancient civic landmark, the gate had been constructed in recent years by Saddam in “grandiose imitation of Baghdad’s classical entrances. It wasn’t even the Assassins’ Gate — not to the Iraqis.” It had only acquired the nickname of “Assassins’ Gate” from occupying American troops. “It was an American invention for an ersatz Iraqi monument, a misnomer for a mirage.” And the point of Packer’s little introductory anecdote about the Iraqi supplicants he met there, who gathered at the gate each morning seeking admission to the CPA-controlled Green Zone with a variety of requests and petitions for the occupiers, is that so much of the American presence in Iraq is also a misnomer for a mirage.

American Neo-Cons, Iraqi Liberals

Packer’s opening chapters offer a thoughtful portrait of the neo-conservative administrators and ideologues who arrived in Washington, thanks to the disputed election of George W. Bush in 2000. The leading neo-conservative figures — Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, vice-president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and sundry others, many of them dating back to the Reagan administration of the 1980s — were particularly contemptuous of Bill Clinton’s tentative “humanitarian interventions” in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Middle East in the 1990s, and “saw Iraq as the test case for their ideas about American power and world leadership. Iraq represented the worst failure of the nineties and the first opportunity of the new American century.” A mish-mosh of motives, from control of oil to exercise of imperial power to some boy scout musings about democracy, made Iraq a focal point of neo-conservative foreign policy ambitions as early as the mid-1990s, well before the younger Bush’s presidency.

As we subsequently learned from former U.S. counterterrorism official Richard Clarke in his scathing book, Against All Enemies (2004), although the Bush administration was ill-prepared for the “9/11” attack, as soon as it occurred, it was made the fortuitous excuse to roll out the plans for the already-contemplated war on Iraq. As early as Sept. 12, 2001, a day after the World Trade Towers attack and a full year-and-a-half before the Iraq invasion, Bush asked his astonished counterterrorism adviser to check for links between “9/11” and Saddam. Clarke’s negative finding did nothing to deter the Iraq-hungry hawks from their war preparations, and Clarke broke with a White House that he had served for 30 years under five presidents in spring 2003, as the troops rolled across the desert toward Baghdad.

The most poignant figure in Assassins’ Gate, who periodically pops up throughout Packer’s chronicle, is an Iraqi exile named Kanan Makiya. Packer first met him in Boston, where Makiya, an architect and an archivist, worked at Brandeis and Harvard universities. In 1989, under a pseudonym, Makiya had published a book about Iraq under Saddam Hussein called Republic of Fear. When the First Gulf War came along, Makiya’s book, which had languished in obscurity, became a minor bestseller among readers who wanted to know something about Iraq. In the aftermath of the war, as it became clear that Saddam’s regime would not be toppled by the Americans, Makiya went public, and became one of a group of exiled spokesmen for forcible regime change in his homeland, writing two more books, The Monument, and Cruelty and Silence, about the fate of Iraq.

Makiya is that all-too-rare bird, an Iraqi secular humanist. It’s Makiya’s brand of liberalism that leads a writer like Packer to his own initial, if ambivalent, support for the war. It was similar appeals to appreciate the internal horror of the Saddam regime that drew so many strange left-of-centre intellectual bedfellows to this quixotic cause: Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, and Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, among them. While the developing ideas of the 1990s about “humanitarian intervention” go some way to explaining how some liberals became hawkish enough to sign on to a neo-con-inspired war (one that bore some anti-totalitarian promise), it’s still puzzling to me how they came to accept an override on international legal norms, one of the grounds of liberalism. In each of the previous interventionist cases — Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, even the horrific failures in Somalia and Rwanda — there was a plausible and legal justificatory argument to support the incursion. Packer, at least, is more conscientious than most in reassessing his position in light of the actual subsequent events on the ground.

When Makiya and Packer meet up again in Iraq in mid-2003, Makiya is engrossed in an effort to transform one of Saddam’s more obscene public monuments, two forearms (modelled on the dictator’s at 40-1 scale) brandishing crossed swords –a triumphant memorial to the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s — into a sort of “memory foundation” to ensure that the regime’s horrors will not be forgotten. “Ultimately and in the very long run,” Makiya tells Packer, “it’s about reshaping 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.” Although Makiya believes and says all the right words, Packers sees his friend as drifting out of touch. “Makiya was consumed with thoughts about the past and the future,” Packer explains. “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.”

Indeed, as Packer points out, Makiya and his counterparts pursued their own mirage. “The returned exiles in Baghdad lived in a world apart. They went to one another’s dinner parties, they traveled easily in and out of the Green Zone… they hatched plans and business schemes and visionary ideas for transforming Iraqi society. The event that had crashed like a bomb in the lives of other Iraqis, shattering the state and leaving them stunned in the smoke and debris, was to the exiles the opportunity of a lifetime.” Increasingly, Makiya’s arguments seem unconvincing to Packer, and his schemes sound more “like an excuse for all that he’d gotten wrong. Iraqis, it turned out, were not who he had thought they were” from the perspective of his long exile. “They were not Kanan Makiya.”

Makiya makes later reappearances in Packer’s chronicle. There’s even a charming romance with a woman friend he’d known as a teenager who he re-encounters in Iraq, and with whom he ends up living back in Boston. But the relevant story line is Makiya’s ultimate irrelevance as a legitimate liberal as events unfold in Iraq. At the end, over a pot of Turkish coffee in Boston, Packer is still trying to sort out his feelings. “He was my friend and I loved him,” Packer declares. “He had devoted his life to an idea of Iraq that I embraced. He had attached that idea to the machinery of war, and a lot of people had gotten killed. No idea remains intact once it’s been bloodied by history, and history had not followed Makiya’s blueprint. At times, his vision of Iraq had been so at odds with what I saw and heard there that dreaming began to seem irresponsible and dangerous.” In the end, Makiya is a guy who can be described, in his own words, as someone who “embodies the triumph of hope over experience.”

Bumbling Bremercrats

Meanwhile, back on the ground, history had not followed the blueprint of the Bushites, either. The “blueprint,” such as it was, was the product of the fantastical thinking of Donald Rumsfeld and his Defense Department, the dominant secretariat in the American government. Plan A called for the invasion of Iraq with minimal numbers of troops, joyous expressions of liberated gratefulness on the part of the Iraqis, troops out within three months or so, reconstruction of the country by American contractors paid for by Iraqi oil money, followed by democratic elections and a changed world. There was, as it turned out, no Plan B.

I remember my own first “aw-oh” about the Iraqi invasion, as I followed it on TV. American troops had secured Baghdad, but within a couple of days of the military triumph there was an ominous small report that the National Museum in Baghdad, which houses one of the world’s great collections of the artifacts of the birth of civilization, had been systematically looted by unidentified Iraqis. The story remains muddy to this day. What became clear, however, was that U.S. troops had made it a priority to guard the Iraqi oil industry and its ministry, but had somehow overlooked the museum and its historic Babylonian treasures.. It seemed to hint at something about the limited perspective of the occupiers, to say nothing of the ambitious perspective of the Iraqi criminal class.

The central and most important chapters of Assassins’ Gate provide a useful and chilling account of the bumbling bureaucrats led by the U.S. civilian administrator of the occupation, Paul Bremer, and his entourage of youthful, inexperienced subordinates, who took over for an overwhelmed Jay Garner, Bush’s first envoy to Iraq. Many of the young Bremer-crats rapidly became aware of the morass in which they found themselves.

As one investment banker who’d been sent to work on economic development told Packer, “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.” The one thing the two disparate approaches had in common, the investment banker added, is that “they’re very conceptual, very ideological. They’re not pragmatic responses to a detailed understanding of facts on the ground.”

The in-country chief ideologue was Paul Bremer, of whom Packer offers a less than flattering profile. His “provisional authority” was housed in one of Saddam’s main palaces, now safely barricaded within the Green Zone. “On the first floor of the palace, off the rotunda, past the metal detector and the bodyguards, Paul Bremer’s long, high-ceilinged office was lined with bookshelves that were nearly bare when I visited. Rudolph Giuliani’s Leadership stood on one shelf, and a book about the management of financial crises on another, near a box of raisin bran.” As it turned out, Bremer’s reading habits and breakfast food preferences provided suggestive clues to a man who arrived in Iraq in May 2003 knowing little about the country. When he left a year later, not much had improved. The occupation, as Packer says, “was launched with a hodgepodge of improvised moves that reflected no one agency’s strategy, no considered strategy at all other than a belated assertion of American control.” It soon gave way to a virulent insurgency and a descent toward possible civil war.

Though Packer’s chronicle only takes us up to the beginning of 2005, the spectre of civil war was already apparent to observers on the ground in 2004, even though it didn’t become a TV item for home consumption until just a few months ago. As Packer says in a late chapter titled “Civil War?”, “Iraq without the lid of totalitarianism clamped down became a place of roiling and contending ethnic claims… It sometimes felt as if a civil war had already started.” As long as a year-and-a-half ago, some analysts had “looked at the mess and decided that only a separation of Iraq into three autonomous regions could prevent civil war.” Though Packer considers that possibility only cursorily, and rejects it as “too remote,” even if it becomes a political necessity, its implementation would face geopolitical obstacles as great as those presented by the American policy of maintaining a unified Iraq.

Toward the end of his book, Packer offers a fanciful alternative, a what-should-have-been version of a regime change policy. But even he admits that “what prevented any of this from happening was, above all, the character of the president. Bush’s war, like his administration, like his political campaigns, was run with his own absence of curiosity and self-criticism…”

On Moderate Political Despair

I suppose there’s bound to be a certain sense of helplessless attendant on having watched the Iraq War from a (safe) distance for more than three years. What one can do is fairly limited. One can, if it’s appropriate, march in protest, though that seems rather futile at this remove. And the insistence of the anti-war march organizers of rolling all engagements — Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Darfur, god-knows-where-else — into one anti-war-everywhere mirage makes the prospect of marching less appetizing to those unwilling to endorse blanket policy. Alternatively, one could decide to “critically support” the occupation and try to figure out better ways to make it work than the present administrators. However, most of those who have taken that course find themselves as befuddled and lost as those who possess the roadmaps. A few intrepid souls have attempted to interpose themselves physically, but it’s often not clear between whom and whom they are volunteering to put their frail bodies. In several cases, they’ve been scooped up as hostages and required rescue by the very forces they’d gone to Iraq to slow down. Other cases turned out more tragically.

One can, minimally, “keep up” with the situation by reading books like Packer’s, which is, I think, the most informative of the crop of volumes that have appeared in the last year. I guess that’s my own almost instinctive response. And one can, I suppose, hope that history will take another turn. I’m still amazed at the awful accidentalness (and/or illegality) that brought George Bush to office, and will allow him to remain there until the end of 2008. But for a jiggle or a hanging chad or a whatever here and there (in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004), Gore or Kerry might have become the American president and, just possibly, there might not have a been a war in Iraq (although leaving Saddam in place would have been grim, too). I’m equally amazed, and strangely reassured, by the sheer incompetence of those who so confidently, just yesterday it seems, declared how the world would go under their exercise of power. Well, it hasn’t, and I suspect that history will continue to be astonished that an empire invaded a hapless nation without an even slightly realistic plan for how to administer its conquest.

So, I find myself with a mild case of political despair, which is not relieved by George Packer’s intelligent reportage. I’ve marched, I’ve read, I’ve continued to hope against hope, and I’ve argued with friends of different dispositions over the past couple of years. The arguments have been surprisingly unvituperative. Maybe it’s just that we’ve gotten older and don’t think lost friendships are adequate compensation for the satisfaction of being right, or more likely, we recognize that the problems of history are harder to crack than a “Da Vinci Code.”

Berlin, May 23, 2006


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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