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October 31, 2005

'The Assassins' Gate': Occupational Hazards - New York Times

Fareed Zakaria on George Packer's The Assassins' Gate:

'The Assassins' Gate': Occupational Hazards - New York Times: FAREED ZAKARIA: IN "The Assassins' Gate," his chronicle of the Iraq war, George Packer tells the tale of Drew Erdmann, a young American official in Baghdad. Erdmann, a recent Harvard Ph.D. in history, finds himself rereading Marc Bloch's classic firsthand account of the fall of France in 1940, "Strange Defeat." He was particularly drawn to a few lines. "The ABC of our profession," Bloch wrote, "is to avoid . . . large abstract terms in order to try to discover behind them the only concrete realities, which are human beings." The story of America in Iraq is one of abstract ideas and concrete realities. "Between them," Packer says, "lies a distance even greater than the 8,000 miles from Washington to Baghdad."

Packer begins his absorbing account with... neoconservatives, most prominently Paul Wolfowitz, had long believed that ousting Saddam Hussein would pave the way for a grand reordering of the Middle East, pushing it... toward modernity and democracy... particularly good for Israel's security.... "They were supremely confident," Packer writes, "all they needed was a mission."

But they wouldn't have had one without 9/11.... After 9/11, Bush - and many Americans, including many liberals - were searching for a use of the nation's power that mixed force with idealism and promised to reorder the Middle East. In Iraq they found it.... Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq. In reading him we see the staggering gap between abstract ideas and concrete reality.

Hard as it is to believe, the Bush administration took on the largest foreign policy project in a generation with little planning or forethought. It occupied a foreign country of 25 million people in the heart of the Middle East pretty much on the fly.... "Swaddled in abstract ideas . . . indifferent to accountability," those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq "turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one," he writes. "When things went wrong, they found other people to blame."

Packer recounts the prewar discussions in the State Department's "Future of Iraq Project"... the need for large-scale forces to maintain security. One would think that this Hobbesian message - that order is the first requisite of civilization - would appeal to conservatives. In fact all of this careful planning and thinking was ignored or dismissed....

The State Department was regarded as the enemy, so what chance was there of working with other countries? The larger problem was that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (and probably Dick Cheney) doggedly believed nation-building was a bad idea.... Rumsfeld's spokesman, Larry Di Rita, went to Kuwait in April 2003 and told the American officials waiting there that the State Department had messed up Bosnia and Kosovo and that the Bush administration intended to hand over power to Iraqis and leave within three months. So the Army's original battle plan for 500,000 troops got whittled down to 160,000.... [Tommy] Franks's predecessor, Anthony Zinni, inquired into the status of "Desert Crossing," his elaborate postwar plan that covered the sealing of borders, securing of weapons sites, provision of order and so on. He was told that it had been discarded because its assumptions were "too negative."

As the looting began and went unchecked, the occupation lost its aura of authority and began spiraling downward. Iraq's first czar, Jay Garner, was quickly replaced.... L. Paul Bremer... an intelligent man but his previous administrative experience was confined to running the American Embassy in The Netherlands... his two catastrophic decisions were probably made in Washington - disbanding the Iraqi Army and de-Baathification.... In one day, Bremer had upended the social structure of the country. And he did this without having in place a new ruling cadre that could take over....

Packer describes an occupation that was focused more on rewarding confederates than gaining success.... Garner received instructions from Feith and Wolfowitz to be nice to... Ahmad Chalab.... State Department officials were barred from high posts.... Senior jobs went to Feith's former law partner and to the brother of Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary. Friendly American firms like Halliburton were favored... something that has infected conservatism.... The result, in government, journalism and think tanks alike, is a profusion of second-raters whose chief virtue is that they are undeniably "sound."...

[S]tarting around May 2004, Washington began reversing course wholesale.... Where is Iraq today? The continuing violence in the Sunni areas has kept most Americans from recognizing what is actually happening in the country. America's blunders forced Washington, hastily and with little planning, to hand over power to... the Kurds and the Shiite religious parties.... In the north, the Kurds run a relatively benign form of one-party democracy. In the south... Shiite religious groups... have imposed their rule.... "Inside the Green Zone, long hours of negotiation about the role of Islam and women's rights... outside a harsh social code enforced by vigilante rule." And in the center, of course, is a war zone.

Let's be clear: Iraq today is a much better, even more liberal, place [today].... But Iraq is also plainly not what so many had hoped it would be - a model and inspiration.... For every day of elections, there are months of chaos, crime and corruption....

Was all this inevitable?... That seems to be the conventional wisdom.... [But] what to make of Afghanistan?.... Two million Afghan refugees have voted with their feet and returned to their country.... The United States allied itself with forces on the ground that could keep order. It handed over the political process to the international community.... It partnered with NATO.... [T]he Afghan National Army is being trained by the United States - and France....

"The Iraq war was always winnable," Packer writes, "it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is hard to forgive." But it is not just recklessness.... Above all... the fatal cost of arrogance...

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Posted by DeLong at October 31, 2005 09:38 AM