How Did Iraq Go Wrong?

Liberal hawks blame incompetence but sidestep American narcissism.


The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 476 pages, $26

There is a line in George Packer's The Assassins' Gate that sums up the American approach to the Middle East: "In this country, Iraq was almost always about winning the argument."

Even before the Bush administration ordered its soldiers into battle in March 2003, Iraqis were incidental to America's domestic debate on the looming war. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis and Americans have largely talked past each other. Offered only a marginal role in Washington's democratic narrative for their country, Iraqis decided to write their own script—whether by bending the postwar Iraqi state to satisfy their long-deferred ambitions or trying to resurrect what existed under the Ba'ath.

The Assassins' Gate is a paradoxical book. It is a merciless account of how America botched Iraq, but it also unintentionally sets itself up as a portent of that fall, because Packer spends the first chapters immersed in American intellectual debates on whether war was justified. As liberal hawks, realists, neoconservatives, left-liberals, and libertarians argued among themselves in the months leading up to combat, and as this discussion colored the administration's own preparations for war, it seemed only natural that Iraq would become a continuation of those disputes by other means. This left little space to prepare for the Byzantine reality of Iraq itself. When things later turned sour, there were precious few answers from the cafés of Brooklyn and Washington, where Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, interviewed many of his subjects.

It's a tribute to Packer's professionalism that he repeatedly traveled to Iraq to see what had become of the project he had supported but whose difficulties he had anticipated. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in December 2002, he compared the certainty of his fellow liberal hawks on Bosnia, Haiti, East Timor, and Kosovo with the uncertainties of Iraq, commenting, "This time the argument is taking place not just between people but within them, where the dilemmas are all the more tormenting."

It takes a strong stomach to digest liberal torment, and Packer doesn't help matters by weighing his own anguish down with occasional overreach. For example, in one passage he profiles Bashir Shaker, a religious Shiite who wonders whether, in the chaos of postwar Iraq, sterner, Islam-based punishment might be the best way to impose morality. Packer then stands back and offers this appraisal: "It was one measure of America's inability to achieve its goals in Iraq that a man like Bashir Shaker, who had everything to gain from the overthrow of Saddam and the opportunities it opened up, now felt himself pulled toward a harsher brand of Islam in reaction to the pervasive insecurity of the occupation."

No one can deny this analysis is partly correct—insecurity did compel many Iraqis to fall back on sectarian or tribal identities—but the more enduring impression the statement leaves is of Packer opportunistically interpreting Shiite restlessness to support his beef with U.S. policy. Surely being "pulled toward a harsher brand of Islam" involves personal dispositions that transcend the blunders of foreign occupation. Nor was it American misdeeds that made Shaker consider public whippings a useful means to end prostitution in Baghdad. Didn't Packer himself, when he initially defended the war, predict that Shiites might welcome Saddam's overthrow as an opportunity to become more religious, given the extent to which the old regime suffocated Shiite religious life?

Such misfires aside, Packer makes many valid criticisms, and his account is one that advocates of the Iraq war —the present author included—must take seriously. Packer asks, and always tries to answer, not only what went wrong but how it went wrong: how Iraqis were themselves transformed following the U.S. invasion of their land, and how the apparent edifice of good will toward Americans disintegrated so rapidly. Anti-war groups have used his book, like they did Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory, David L. Phillips' Losing Iraq, and others, as another brick to throw at the administration. Yet the moral of these authors' tales is very different from the idea embraced by longtime opponents of the war: Where the latter insisted the Iraq war was immoral and probably destined to fail, the authors believe the invasion was justifiable in principle and that its aftermath could have been different with the right policies.

When it comes to the Bush administration's policy shortcomings, Packer's beefs are familiar. The Americans allowed ministries in Baghdad to be looted soon after the city's fall, effectively erasing the hard disks that would have allowed Iraqi rehabilitation. They unnecessarily dissolved the Iraqi Army and fired Ba'athist civil servants, throwing tens of thousands of angry, unemployed, often armed people, many of them Sunnis, into the streets. They repeatedly misread the situation on the ground, so that the simple closing of a Shiite newspaper could help spark a months-long uprising. They worked at cross purposes on state building, failed to send enough soldiers, and failed to protect infrastructure, particularly the electricity grid. They neglected even to define a consistent objective for the occupation, planning at first to maintain direct control over government before agreeing to transfer authority to Iraqis.

In a revealing passage on the mind-set of Washington's former supremo in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, Packer writes: "He would approach the running of Iraq like a demanding corporate executive, insisting on fast and quantifiable results from his staff, hating surprises and setbacks, imagining that he could prevail over adversity on the strength of his character." This economical description aptly captures the undiscerning positivism with which Americans tend to approach international headaches. Bremer was a man of hard truths in a country of soft ones.

But to describe the problem as incompetence is too sweeping, when American soldiers, whose sometimes heroic efforts Packer describes at some length, succeeded in improvising community-building schemes with the laughably little they were provided; when that maligned Parnassus of ineptitude, Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, also happened to be an assiduous, exhausting beehive of confident, if misplaced, activity; when Bremer himself, as experience took its toll, got over his initial hubris and began reversing the decisions he had so impetuously taken upon arriving; and certainly when more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives, alongside many tens of thousands of Iraqis.

The charge of incompetence is also too narrow. In Iraq there was a wide gap between rhetoric and reality, between goals and means as a result of the Bush administration's indolence. Iraq became a sprawling black hole of presidential leadership, because George W. Bush allowed the escalating violence there, and discord within his own administration, to undermine the ambition to turn Iraq into a cornerstone of Middle Eastern democracy. There is a bitter truth for those of us who still believe this goal was achievable, who applauded Bush's effort to start the ball rolling by removing the most savage of savage despots, who hoped the president was on the road to ridding his country of its burdensome friendships with Middle Eastern dictators. The truth is that this administration ended up doing more harm to its declared aims in Iraq than was defensible for so seminal a mission.

One does not allow regional transformation to be derailed by mostly avoidable errors—errors acknowledged at the time or later by U.S. officials themselves. Jay Garner, the first American overseer of postwar reconstruction, was given only four to five weeks to prepare for his monumental task, from which he was dismissed not long after moving to Iraq. Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army and Ba'ath Party soon after taking office, then partly reversed that move a year later, in April 2004, when he reinstated former Ba'athist officers relatively untainted by the old regime. Bremer at first rejected allowing Iraqis to elect members to their constituent assembly, creating an impression that the U.S. had no real interest in Iraqi democracy, only to alter course when faced down by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. There was a pattern of impulsiveness followed by belated recognition that things should have been done differently.

The sad reality is that American military families and taxpayers are paying heavily for those errors. The happier one is that the Iraqis themselves, who are suffering by far the worst of the carnage, have already psychologically moved beyond the U.S. in determining their own future. They are not out of the woods yet, and it is to Bush's credit that he hasn't overcompensated for his setbacks by ordering a premature evacuation. But it is Iraqis who wrote their constitution, and it is Iraqis who will have to establish security and determine what national pact they intend to live under. It is also Iraqis who will decide if they ultimately want to be led by democrats or tyrants.

The U.S. entered Iraq to decisively tilt the contest in favor of liberal democrats. Now, with the Iraqis increasingly encouraged to go it alone, can we honestly say the liberals will come out on top? America's grand endeavor, at first a promise of salvation, has been cut down to an exercise in hoping.