Back to basics on Iraq invasion: `Why'?

Iraq War

October 16, 2005|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,SUN REPORTER

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

George Packer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 454 pages

One of the fundamental rules of good reporting is to keep asking basic questions even about the things for which you assume you know the answers. The New Yorker writer George Packer, who began his insightful explorations of Iraq among policy-makers in Washington, D.C. and within the scattered Iraqi exile community before traveling to Baghdad, remembers to ask, these many months after the fateful decisions were made, "Why did the United States invade Iraq?"

"It still isn't possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War," he writes early in The Assassins' Gate, perhaps the richest, most unsettling synthesis of reporting and careful thinking to come out of either Washington or Baghdad about the conflict. The United States invaded for reasons having something to do with Sept. 11. "But what, exactly?"

That hurried season when the Bush administration coined its justifications already feels like a distant era. Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; Iraq would be able to build nuclear weapons within a year; Iraq was a "grave and gathering danger."

People of good faith debated what they believed to be the evidence for those claims, but Packer found the war's architects were less engaged by well-vetted information than by a national messianism. In Washington think tanks, the Pentagon, the National Security Office and, apparently, the Oval Office, men and women who knew little of Iraq concluded that a lightning war toppling Hussein would undermine dictatorships and mullahs throughout the Middle East. And that became the heart of the administration's plan.

"Plan A was that the Iraqi government would be quickly decapitated, security would be turned over to the remnants of the Iraqi police and Army, international troops would soon arrive, and most American forces would leave within a few months," says Packer. "There was no Plan B."

Because the Pentagon refused to believe there could be a guerrilla war, it failed to prepare for one. American commanders made the security of U.S. forces a higher priority than security for Iraqis. For the administration, the perception of Americans, and the workings of the news cycle in Washington and New York, mattered more than the reality on the ground. "What had been left out of the planning," Packer says, "were the Iraqis themselves."

The Assassins' Gate, which takes its title from the name American soldiers bestowed on the main entrance to the fortified Green Zone, isn't a "policy" book or an "I-was-there" battlefield account. It is a rigorous, sustained inquiry into the clashing expectations for Iraq, how the war was planned, and the staggering wreckage of Iraqi society.

Packer finds many heroes. Drew Erdman, a young State Department official who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, knew from painstaking historical research, ignored by the Pentagon, that the American occupation's success depended on having international support and providing security for the Iraqis; safe streets were more important than purges of Baathists. At great risk to herself, Luna Dawood, an Assyrian Christian, secretly kept carloads of records documenting Hussein's pitiless ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Kirkuk.

Americans might still debate whether this was a necessary war. Debate as to whether it was well-planned or executed is safely over; the evidence is too damning. The administration never developed a plan for after. The Bush administration preferred a wished-for reality to factual knowledge. It lacked a sense of fallibility. A Marine colonel told Packer, "Bad news was very, very slow to filter up."

It's possible that yesterday's constitutional referendum will begin to right Iraq, but the damage inflicted by the United States, after the catastrophes wrought by Hussein, make the odds extremely long.

"Those in positions of higher responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence," Packer writes of the Americans, near the end of this persuasive, often-mesmerizing examination of the ruins. "Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one."

robert.ruby@baltsun.com

Robert Ruby is The Sun's foreign editor.

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