March 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer

The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq is emphatically not a book you can call “pleasure reading.”

The book sat on my table for months. Day after day I looked at its somber black, sepia, and gold cover, but whenever I picked it up and felt its sheer weight (both in number of pages and subject matter) I lacked the heart to flip through all the front matter, merely to arrive at the introduction, and then have to further apply myself to reading a book dedicated to exploring America’s 2003 entrance into the second Gulf War and the aftermath of that invasion. So day after day I put the book back down, and turned to other, easier reads.

It may not be a pleasurable read. Or an easy read. But, in its defense, it is a nuanced read, and one of the few books that is comprehensive enough to honor the complexity of history, politics, and ideology in the Middle East. Packer, who reported on the war and its legacy of continuing insurgencies for The New Yorker, traveled to Iraq four times, interviewing American bureaucrats and officials in the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), military personnel, and Iraqi citizens, among them his drivers and bodyguards. If he’d left it there, this would be interesting political book, but an incomplete story.

What makes the book stand out is Packer’s evident desire to explore diverse viewpoints about the current situation in Iraq. This desire is in evidence from the very first pages of The Assassins’ Gate, which he opens not with interviews with American politicians or military personnel, but rather by introducing Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya (author of Republic of Fear, a book about life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which was published in 1989 and became a bestseller after the dictator’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait) who harbored definite opinions and hopes for a post-Saddam Iraqi society. From there Packer launches into a history of other key political and intellectual figures (among them many “neoconservatives” who operated largely under the radar of the American public) who all had a part in crafting America’s post-Cold War foreign policies and ideologies, including political commentator and author Robert Kagan, The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz (undersecretary of defense for policy under George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of Defense), Richard Perle (Ronald Reagan’s assistant Secretary of Defense), Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and both George Bushes. Packer’s first one hundred pages, as a matter of fact, have much more to do with explaining the background of the first Gulf War than the second.

Packer’s narrative takes a turn for the investigative thereafter, and in subsequent chapters he interviews such individuals as Drew Erdmann, a U.S. State Department employee who, at age thirty-six, worked for the CPA in Iraq as the acting minister of higher education; Dr. Baher Butti, an Iraqi psychiatrist who sought to create a center for creative thinking that would seek to teach “logical and rational thinking” skills; Meghan O’Sullivan, another CPA employee who worked under both Jay Garner and Paul Bremer; Captain John Prior, a twenty-nine-year-old rifle company commander in charge of small reconstruction projects in postwar Baghdad; and an Iraqi woman named Aseel who welcomed the Americans but still dreams of leaving Iraq to achieve her own freedom.

Throughout these interviews Packer provides a subtly horrific picture of the complete and utter lack of any sort of postwar planning by the current Bush administration. Although his personal opinion that removing Hussein from power was necessary is in evidence (not only in his text but literally on his book, which boasts a blurb by Christopher Hitchens, who is no longer as famous for his liberalism as he is for his vocal and rabid support of the 2003 invasion), he does not shy away from pointing out George W. Bush’s unwillingness to hear anything but supporting viewpoints, or the many ways in which the postwar “reconstruction” of Iraq failed, both ideologically and in practice. His concluding chapters focus on the continuing insurgencies and the strong possibility of civil war in Iraq, which, if recent news reports are any indication, has moved beyond possibility into reality.

Packer is also the author of the memoirs The Village of Waiting, about his Peace Corps experience in the African country of Togo in the 1980s, and Blood of the Liberals, in which he explores his own family’s “liberal” history and opinions; both titles received favorable reviews from both critics and readers. He is also the editor of The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World. He is a skilled writer, and even if he couldn’t make his subject matter simple, he has made its enormous complexity visible. His book may not be pleasurable or easy to read, but it should be read nonetheless.

The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374299633
467 pages