In contrast to most news articles, this book is not especially partisan and certainly not ranting. Though it was very critical of the conduct of the war in Iraq, Packer, a reporter for the New Yorker, was at pains to describe what happened and explain why it was such as disaster. As Christopher Hitchens, in his review of the book, said, “His book rests on three main pillars: analysis of the intellectual origins of the Iraq war, summary of the political argument that preceded and then led to it, and firsthand description of the consequences on the ground.”
I was particularly interested in the intellectual origins in the neo-conservative ideas for changing America’s foreign policy from Kissinger’s “realpolitik” to something more moral, (or, in very simplistic terms—mine not theirs—not supporting nasty dictators who happened temporarily to support American interests but supporting the growth of freedom and democracy for people around the world. Packer was certainly not unsympathetic with this view, but he thought it took a dangerous wrong turn under the control of planners who basically refused to be put in touch with reality....
The war policy was primarily crafted by two men who were not idea men (Cheney and Rumsfeld) and one who was (Wolfowitz, who was a student of the late Allan Bloom—remember The Closing of the American Mind
? —and even appeared briefly as a character in Saul Bellow’s novel about Bloom, Ravelstein
). One of the contemporary ideas that the neoconservatives hated was “nation building”. UN peacekeeping was seen as having caused nothing but problems and the crafters of the Iraq strategy were utterly determined that the US should not involve itself in building nations. There were relatively simplistic plans for the occupation of Iraq, not because the war came up in such a rush there was no time to plan, but because Rumsfeld deliberately excluded it. He thought that postwar reconstruction in the 90ies fostered dependency. The “plan” really was to win the battle, clean up a few things and retire immediately.
Packer went to Iraq himself to see what was going on. He traveled back and forth from 2003 to 2005, visiting all parts of Iraq and all sorts of people: Americans in all capacities, Iraqis who were Shite, Sunni, Kurd, Christian; men, women and children, Iraqi émigrés who’d returned, those who wanted an Islamic republic and those who wanted a secular state, etc. The book is full of their stories, particularly that of Kanan Makiya whose books, Republic of Fear
in 1989 (about Iraq under Saddam) and Cruelty and Silence
in 1993 (about the betrayal of Iraqis after the Gulf War) influenced Packer. Packer actually knew Makiya in Cambridge before the war, had coffee and talked with him frequently but came to realize in Iraq how unrealistic Makiya's ideas and plans were. The book actually ends where it began, with the two chatting over coffee in the US and the last word is Makiya’s: “I think it was Ahmad [Chalabi] who said of me that I embody the triumph of hope over experience”.
But there are other very moving stories, often of people that Packer visited with several times over a couple of years: a young woman who spent all her time figuring out how to get out of Iraq once that possibility arose, a Kurdish woman who’d been forcibly removed from her house when Saddam attempted the “Arabization” of Kirkuk, an Iraqi psychiatrist who longed to treat people’s minds but become a trauma doctor because of first the war and then the insurgency, an American father whose soldier son was killed—and many more.
The book is thoughtful and sane, designed to make readers understand the complexity.
If you’re interested in the title, here’s the first paragraph of the prologue (as well as a sample of Packer’s lovely prose): “In the shade of a high sandstone arch, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a platoon of American soldiers from the First Armored Division guarded the main point of entry to the vast and heavily fortified Green Zone along the west bank of the Tigris River, where the Coalition Provisional Authority governed occupied Iraq. When I arrived in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 and first saw the arch, I mistook it for one of the city’s antique gates, built during the time of the caliphs to keep out Persian invaders. The American soldiers referred to it by a name that seemed to have come straight out of the Thousand and One Nights
. They called it the Assassins’ Gate.” The gate turned out to have been built by Saddam in an antique style and it was called, Bab al-Qasr
, the Palace Gate.