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Assassin’s Gate – Review

ASSASSIN’S GATE, by George Packer. Faber, #14,99, published 2/2/06

Why did the Iraq war happen? How did an apparently sane and mature country like the USA persuade itself that it could pitch up in the Middle East and impose, almost overnight, a new democratic order by force of arms alone? It was simply madness.
George W. Bush may have been out to lunch for most of the time, but Washington is crawling with military analysts, intelligence agents, generals, diplomats, academics and policy wonks. Surely they could see that Iraq was a quagmire, a senseless engagement, the Vietnam of the new Millennium. Where were they when their country needed them? It would never have happened on the West Wing.
It was surely obvious that a Christian “crusade” (as George W Bush artlessly put it) against a Muslim country was a risky enterprise, more likely to destabilise the Middle East than bring it into the moral universe of the democratic West.
The evidence for weapons of mass destruction – the casus belli – was thin to the point of absurdity, as Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossiers’ confirmed long before Americans went in with guns blazing. If Iraq had any WMD at all, it was almost certainly not in a weaponised form.
The sensible course, the obvious course, would have been to let Hans Blix and his United Nations
weapons inspectors finish their work in 2003. Track down any remnants of Saddam’s nuclear programme and put it beyond use. You didn’t need to invade the country to do that. But invade they did.
Of course, President Bush had a personal agenda. He wanted to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” as he famously put it. But bin Laden was never in Iraq, and Sadaam Hussein loathed al Qaeda. US military planners and the CIA understood this perfectly well and even warned Bush that military invasion was likely to made international terrorism worse. And so it proved. Iraq has become a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, a training camp for suicide bombers.
So, again, why?. Why did America embark on this lunatic adventure which fractured the international community, undermined US prestige, squandered 2000 American lives and will probably end up costing around three trillion dollars. We need an answer. Unfortunately, George Packer doesn’t provide one.
“Why did the United States invade Iraq?”, he asks. “It still isn’t possible to be sure – and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War. Before the Invasion, Americans argued not just about whether a war should happen, but for what reasons it should happen”. But happen it did. America won the war, and then proceeded to comprehensively lose the peace.
Packer, star writer of The New Yorker, had a ring-side seat. “Assasssin’s Gate” recounts how hubris clashed with self delusion as the most powerful military force in history discovered that it was unable to defeat an insurgency mounted by a few muslim extremists and Baathist die hards.
Packer was there in the days after Bush declared “victory” and the real war began. He watched the Iraq dissolve into anarchy and looting, thanks to criminal irresponsibility on the part the provisional administration. He joined the marines in Ramadi and Fallujah and watched them turn from heroic liberators to tetchy, trigger-happy occupiers.
Packer has respect, affection even, for more lowly Americans administrators trying to make sense of the chaos. And for murdered diplomats, like the UN’s Viera di Mello. He applauds the heroism of the Iraqis who joined the Americans, in the naive belief that they were bringing a new dawn of democracy to a country brutalised by thirty years of dictatorship. But good and bad, all are consumed.
The Iraq insurgency is something new in military history. It isn’t guerilla warfare of the Maoist kind, still less a conventional national liberation front. It has no ideology or programme. There is no organisation, leadership, secretariat or press office. America has stirred up in Iraq a primitive passion, a violent religious ecstasy, that owes more to the Middle Ages than the new Millennium.
It’s been a long road from the seminars of the Neo Conservative intellectuals who saw the liberation of Iraq as the defining moment of the new American Century. From the idealistic salons of expatriate Iraqis, like his close friend, the writer Kanan Kalikya, who persuaded the Neo Cons that Iraq was their New Jerusalem.
George Packer was a liberal supporter of the war, still is. ‘The administration’s war wasn’t my war”, he says. “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. One doesn’t get one’s choice of wars”. Perhaps not, but there comes a time, surely, for cutting one’s losses.
Packer’s conclusion that it is too early to tell whether or not the Iraq war has been a success echoes Chou En Lai’s claim that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution had succeeded. But sometimes you just have to get off the fence, especially if you’ve devoted nearly five hundred pages to the most detailed, authoritative, first hand account of a military and political catastrophe.
“Assassin’s Gate” has been compared to Michael Herr’s Vietnam “Dispatches”, but it is a much better book than that. Packer doesn’t just give us the pornography of war. He has thought very carefully about the issues, spoken to many key figures, watched the whole thing unfold with his own eyes.
Packer is too intelligent not to see that Iraq is America’s greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. That the war has profoundly weakened America both morally, in the eyes of the international community, and militarily, in the eyes of America’s many enemies. The greatest superpower in history is bogged down in a war it can’t win. A stupid war, prosecuted by stupid men who celebrate their own ignorance and are too arrogant to recognise their mistakes.
But Packer isn’t stupid and he owes it to himself to condemn this atrocity. This humane and intelligent book is more than this war deserves. “Assassin’s Gate” is an important work of contemporary history which has all the tension and narrative force of le Carre. But unfortunately it is fact not fiction. We are all the worse for that.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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