Anatomy of a Disaster

The problem with some books is that in place of a review you simply want to reprint long excerpts. George Packer, who has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine is a graceful and sometimes eloquent writer who has interviewed or tagged along with dozens of people in Iraq and the United States, and his book is informative from a number of angles.

Some 92 Americans, the highest number since 106 in January, were killed in Iraq in October, suggesting that the U.S. mission there is something less than an unalloyed success. Some war supporters are content to take refuge in their talking points (some of which have some merit). Those who wish to understand the far more complex situation there and how the United States got into a predicament that could involve years of sacrifice without a satisfactory outcome could do worse than to read this book.

A couple of weeks ago the conservative columnist George Will recommended "Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq." Even Christopher Hitchens calls him "the best chronicler, apart perhaps from John Burns of the New York Times, that the conflict has produced." I don’t know whether these amount to recommendations for some readers, but I agree.

This is very much a reporter’s book. Packer took several trips to Iraq and spent weeks, in Iraq and back home, talking to people, from civilian honchos to U.S. soldiers of all ranks to Iraqis, outside the Coalition Provisional Authority’s heavily fortified and unfortunately isolated Green Zone in Baghdad – it was easier for reporters in the months following the successful invasion than it is now. He tells what he knows of the story compellingly and gracefully.


There a really a number of stories, but the big story this book deals with is what some of us wrote at the time, half suspecting it was a bit of an exaggeration. The United States went into the war with no plan – no plan at all beyond the vaguest of good intentions – for dealing with the aftermath. Oh, there were plans and drafts of plans, both from State and Defense and from several think tanks. But Neocons like Paul Wolfowitz who souped up the threat of Saddam apparently believed their own propaganda. They really thought the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and we could turn the country over to exiles like Ahmad Chalabi and all would be well.

They never imagined there would be post-conquest conflict and their view prevailed. Packer tells the story of bureaucratic infighting among State, Defense and the National Security Council that left several possible reconstruction plans gathering dust skillfully, integrating numerous personal stories with the larger, tragic story of opportunities missed, problems not foreseen, and complications ignored.

Prior to the war State and Defense were at odds on almost everything. In such a situation the ostensible job of the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice at the time, is to be not just an honest broker but an honest balancer, making sure the president hears the best arguments from all sides before making a decision. However, Packer writes, "Rice, in charge of coordinating policy, proved more skillful at seconding the president than obliging him to consider the range of arguments and resolve them in a coherent way. At his meeting with Iraqi exiles in early January, when the problems of postwar Iraq came up, Bush turned to Rice and said, ‘A humanitarian army is going to follow our army into Iraq, right?’ Right, Rice affirmed, but she glanced down in a way that suggested she knew how inadequate the answer was."

Pettiness was apparently the order of the day. The administration was reluctant not just to reconcile differing postwar plans but even to admit to itself or to the American people that such a plan was needed, apparently fearing that talk of possible postwar complications might diminish support for the war.

During the buildup to the war Defense seized control of the postwar from State, but then "the officials under Wolfowitz managed to pull together just one briefing, on oil." and it was so unfocused Rice asked an NSC staffer, Frank Miller, barely a week before the invasion began, to put something together. He pulled together some general principles on de-Ba’athification and what should be done with the Iraqi army. "everyone up to the president approved these eleventh-hour decisions. And yet, somehow, they would never matter in Iraq. They seemed to exist so that, in case anyone ever asked, someone could say, ‘Yes, the president was briefed and he signed off.’"


A reluctant supporter of the war for its possibly democratizing potential even though he had doubts about WMD, Packer gives credit where it’s due. He tells of numerous earnest young American military people who took their assignment of trying to build something resembling a civil society in Iraq seriously and made some progress, despite not being trained to do it or getting much support from higher echelons. Schools really were rebuilt and reopened, hospitals and sewer systems repaired, good will created.

The bigger story, however, is that due to early mistakes, mainly aggressive de-Ba’athification and the dismantling of the Iraqi military, thousands of Iraqis were left without employment and with a strong sense of grievance. All those armed and angry people created a security problem the U.S. never anticipated, did not deal with, and has not solved to this day.

Packer met with a group of Iraqi professionals: "There was a urologist named Nimat Kamal, who looked like Ed Asner when he scowled, and a fire engineer with a softer manner named Mohamed Abbas. Dr. Kamal was livid at his treatment by Americans. There were three tanks positioned outside his hospital, and every day soldiers searched him and his car — every day, even though they knew him. ‘They don’t distinguish between a doctor and a terrorist.’ One of his distant relatives and his neighbor’s twelve-year-old boy had been shot to pieces recently when they inadvertently drove into a street that soldiers had cordoned off. At the same time the urologist wanted more security from the Americans."


The other story is that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Paul Bremer (who was described at the time of his appointment to me by a retired foreign-service officer who knew him as "almost as smart as he thinks he is") was short of just about everything – money, vision, a sense of the implications of Iraq’s ethnic/religious divisions, accurate information, drivers, translators, body armor, people who knew anything about Iraq and the ability to recognize and respond coherently to changing events.

Among the results was that CPA people on the ground were left to improvise. Some did reasonably well and others did disastrously. "The trade-off between control and legitimacy was the recurring dilemma of every CPA decision, and there were dozens made every day by fallible human beings, and each one was going to push the project in one direction or another." Early on, Iraq might have been fairly malleable, but it hardened quickly and the U.S. was never trusted. The fact that the information officers at CPA in Baghdad essentiality became an arm of the White House, issuing nothing but cheerful bulletins that before long nobody believed (except for some people back home, I suppose) didn’t help much.

"Senor and Kimmett were only repeating the blithe reassurance coming from the White House and Pentagon in the midst of a presidential campaign," Packer notes, "but in Baghdad their words took on the tone of farce, and the audience that mattered most – the Iraqis – wasn’t fooled."

One of the reasons the prisoner abuse scandal was allowed to get out of hand was that "Bremer and Sanchez, the senior civilian and the senior soldier in Iraq, ‘literally hated each other,’ an official in Washington said. ‘Jerry thought Sanchez was an idiot, and Sanchez thought Jerry was a civilian micromanaging son of a bitch.’"

Along the way we meet U.S. officers and grunts, Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds – from students to businessmen to civil servants – ivory-tower theorists in positions of authority, and well-meaning, hard-working but ultimately frustrated Americans, their stories told with a sharp reporter’s eye and a minimum of commentary.

The commentary he does provide is restrained but insistent: "Because the Iraq War began in ideas, it always suffered from abstraction. But long after those ideas took actual shape in Kevlar and C-4 and shrapnel, the war’s most conspicuous proponents and detractors continued to see it and speak of it in the French historian Marc Bloch’s ‘large abstract terms.’ The key terms in Iraq were ‘imperialism,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘unilateralism,’ ‘internationalization,’ ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ ‘preemption,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘totalitarianism,’ ‘neoconservatism,’ ‘appeasement.’ One month after he survived the bombing in Baghdad, I met Ghasser Salame, Sergio Vieira de Mello’s political adviser, in the lobby of the UN headquarters in New York. Looking a little wan, Salame said, ‘Iraq needs to be liberated – liberated from big plans. Every time people mentioned it in the last few years, it was to connect it to big ideas: the war against WMDs, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, more recently the war against terrorism and a model of democracy. That’s why all these mistakes are made. They’re made because Iraq is always in someone’s mind the first step to something else.’"

This cautionary tale should be digested by Americans before our leaders set out on another adventure in nation-building. Iraq, which has approved a constitution, may come out of all this semi-stable. To know why the odds are long, however, you could do much worse than to read this book.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).