Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Assassins' Gate: America In Iraq, George Packer

The Assassins' Gate: America In Iraq
George Packer

This was a really tough read for me. Some of the reasons are my own fault, one is the fault of the book, and some are the result of all kinds of environmental things going on during the five or six months I've been slogging through it.

And there we hit my first problem: six months. I can't even remember when I started it now. It was a long time back, though, and anything I have to say here must be tempered by the fact that a lot of this book was read long enough ago that it's a hazy memory now.

So let's start at the beginning and I'll review and confess my way through this.

First off, this is an important work. I'd read a few NYT columns by Packer over the years, mostly sent to me as links by a friend. I found his insights into Iraq interesting and honest. When I heard about his book, probably on NPR, I thought it would be a good read. I got ahold of a copy through and here I sit.

One of the things I have noted over the years is how so many people seem to think that things are simple. Yes or no. Right or wrong. Paper or plastic. In reality the world is a lot more complicated than that, and the Iraq war is a good example of that fact.

Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Of that I have no doubt. At one point he did have WMD, and his regime was brutal in every respect. That's all well documented from many years ago, long before we went to war in Iraq. But at what price is a thug like Saddam removed, and when does it become the responsibility of the United States to make that happen? That isn't a simple question. The neoconservatives, for all the difficulties the war had and created, take the long view that it will all have been worthwhile in the fullness of time. But there's no knowing that now, of course. Others think that we should never go to war, or that we should only do so when forced. But Saddam had gassed people living in his own country, had threatened neighbors, and was brutal in the extreme. Where is the moral high ground if you leave someone like that in power?

The Assassins' Gate discusses the Iraq war in a mostly unbiased way. It was ground researched in Iraq by Packer himself, and he presents it with all the complexity from which an event like this actually suffers. Even more interesting, part of his presentation is specific stories about specific people living in Iraq as the chaos goes on around them. The writing is eloquent and well edited. It should have been a smooth and satisfying read, but it didn't go that way for me.

In truth my reading of this book was in trouble long before I went back to work. There are so many names and places presented I couldn't keep them all straight. Not even close. Coming back to it after having set it down was always an exercise in trying to remember what I'd read before, even when it had been interesting and enlightening.

Some of the problem stems from the organization of the book, and this is the only thing I can lay at the feet of the author. I had the hardest time telling when something I was reading was related to. Chapters would go by without a date - not even a year - and I couldn't pin down where we were in the process as a result. This made various sections disjoint to the point that I couldn't hold them in my head. The addition of a time line, calling out major events and when the various people he mentions were in the places described, would have helped me immensely.

In any event, I struggled on, knowing I was learning things, if only peripherally. Then came November and I went back to work. I was at least 2/3rds of the way through when that happened, and for a while all progress completely stopped. Coming back to it after that was even harder, but once again I managed it.

Now I'm finally done, and what have I really learned? Alas it isn't as much as I'd like, but that's basically all my fault, not the author's.

Packer managed to reinforce my conviction that Iraq was a mess from the start. That we totally botched the planning by thinking all we had to do was win the fight and get out, making no plans for winning the peace. It is clear that many are responsible for that horrible miscalculation, but the Rumsfeld and Cheney seem to be on the top of that list. Whether or not Bush himself was planning an Iraq war on coming into office I can't say with certainty, but it's still possible as far as I can tell. Those who were in charge actually believe that what we did (and are doing) there will transform the entire middle east, making us all safer in the end. I retain my doubts. Strong doubts.

In human terms the Iraq war has, so far, lead to mixed results. Some Iraqis think they were better off with Saddam. Others disagree, confirming the complexity of the situation. What we've done, though, is unleash the religious differences that had been held in check in Iraq and greatly increased the influence of Iran. I doubt those were the administration's goals going in, and they clearly weren't expected by the exiles and outcasts who pushed for this intervention so forcefully.

Whether history will be kind to President Bush I can't say. It is entirely possible that I won't live long enough to know. Sadly, though, I believe there were other avenues we should have taken that might have lead to Saddam's ouster in ways that were better accepted - by the region and the people of Iraq. The loss of those opportunities is something I believe we should all regret.

Those wanting more information - deep and detailed - about the first half of the Iraq war are encouraged to read The Assassins' Gate. I think it's got a lot to recommend it, even if I had trouble.