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October 10, 2005

Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Incompetents? (Yet Another Occupation-of-Iraq Edition)

Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs on George Packer's The Assassins' Gate:

Welcome to the Occupation: How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer's masterful new The Assassins' Gate.

In the run-up to the 2003 war, three rationales were offered for the invasion: fear of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, links between Iraq and terrorism, and a desire to bring liberal democracy to Iraq and the Middle East at large. The first was essentially an honest mistake.... The second was essentially a dishonest one; there were never any good reasons to think Iraq was connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or likely to work closely with al Qaeda. The third... was a high-stakes gamble.... [F]ew experts thought it would be possible to transform Iraq's domestic structures quickly or easily, to say nothing of sparking a regional democratic revolution....

Packer... tells the story of this third rationale -- how it emerged, how the Bush administration tried to implement it and how things turned out... the case for democratization played an important role in buttressing the other two arguments and was the most exciting aspect of the endeavor.... The book is framed by the story of Kanan Makiya, an idealistic Iraqi exile whose writings had exposed the evil of Saddam Hussein's republic of fear and who had come to see American power as Iraq's only hope for a better future....

A hawkish liberal himself, Packer was torn between his sympathy for Makiya's goals and his misgivings about whether they were likely to be achieved. "I would run down the many compelling reasons why a war would be unwise, only to find at the end that Saddam was still in power, tormenting his people and defying the world," he writes. "The administration's war was not my war -- it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances -- but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way." Eventually, crossing his fingers and deciding that Saddam Hussein had to be considered the greater evil, he went along for the ride (as did I). Packer's sketch of the prewar debates is subtle, sharp and poignant....

Writing with barely suppressed fury and continued bafflement, he describes how the great and noble enterprise he supported is inexplicably handed over to those least qualified to make it work: "No one at the top level of the administration was less interested in the future of Iraq than Donald Rumsfeld. Yet he would demand and receive control over the postwar, and he would entrust it to his more ideologically fervent aides, in whom he placed the same incurious confidence that the president placed in Rumsfeld." The result... has been one of the worst self-inflicted wounds in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The military leadership under Gen. Tommy Franks abdicated any responsibility... the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and in the vice president's office... block[ed] others from doing anything useful; a feckless president surrounded by sycophants and ideologues....

Thuggish Iraqis grow bolder as crime goes unpunished; decent Iraqis grow despondent as the occupying troops stand down and let chaos unfold.... Soon even Washington realized that things were not going well, and the first postwar team was abruptly sent packing. As Jay Garner and his hapless Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance were replaced by L. Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority, a U.S. official tells Packer, the American approach shifted from "arrogance" to "hubris": "The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, 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'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."

That didn't work either, in part because ill-considered early decisions to pursue radical de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi army led many in the country's Sunni minority to oppose the occupation. Eventually the Bush administration shifted course again.... Packer relates all this clearly and briskly, painting moving portraits of both Iraqis and Americans while skillfully guiding the reader through the intricacies of colonial administration, Iraqi ethnic politics and Beltway skullduggery... putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet....

Ultimately, Packer refuses to tie the threads of his analysis together in a tidy bundle and settle accounts.... Given the sorry tale he has just told, this seems something of a cop-out. But it is also not entirely unreasonable, for although events in Iraq have now largely passed out of Washington's control, there is still a remote possibility that the worst outcomes... might be kept at bay, leaving the ending of one of the cruelest tyrannies in modern history as an accomplishment worth savoring.

It is not too soon, however, to return a judgment on those at the helm who took a difficult job and made it infinitely more so, dramatically undermining America's regional and global position in the process. They were "careless people," as Fitzgerald said of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." That, if nothing else, can stand as a lesson for future tender souls contemplating the possible benefits of liberal imperialism and mulling attempts to do the right thing with the wrong partners.

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach him now.

Posted by DeLong at October 10, 2005 07:17 PM