The assassins' gate : America in Iraq

by George Packer

Paper Book, 2005




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.


This book recounts how the United States set about changing the history of the Middle East and became ensnared in a guerrilla war in Iraq. It brings to life the people and ideas that created the Bush administration's war policy and led America to the Assassins' Gate--the main point of entry into the American zone in Baghdad. The consequences of that policy are shown in the author's reporting on the ground in Iraq for The New Yorker. We see up close the struggles of American soldiers and civilians and Iraqis from all backgrounds, thrown together by a war that followed none of the preconceived scripts. The book also describes the war in American life: the ideological battles in Washington, the ordeal of a fallen soldier's family, and the political culture of a country too polarized to realize such a vast and morally complex undertaking.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member flh4ever
I took this course called Why War and we covered A LOT of material philosophical and historical mostly. The end of the course was devoted to Iraq and we read Packer's book. I have to say that out of all the books on Iraq we covered, his was the most well-rounded at covering pre-phase planning and what led to the horrors of Phase IV. His time spent in Iraq and talking with the people was so enlightening as to how complicated everything really is. Also, he spends time on the Iraqi exiles who helped form some of the American opinions on what they thought Iraqis wanted. It's a must read for anyone looking to get some insight into the years leading up to invading Iraq and how some of the Iraqi people really felt.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
George Packer's reporting brings the human element back into the Iraq narrative. His book is partly about the ignorance, incompetence and corruption typical of the Bush administration in Iraq, partly it is a prism of US and Iraqi voices struggling for survival. While the neo-con initiation of the war is a gripping read, it is old news. What I find interesting in the book, is the amount of space Packer dedicates to present the different viewpoints of ordinary Iraqis who normally appear only as numbers and props in the American narrative. We learn about their challenges and moods of optimism and despair in a time of war and occupation. Surprisingly (but typically American), he ends his gory tale with a sunny, idealistic outlook to which history has not been kind. Packer still is an idealist, something all the blood spilt has not changed.… (more)
LibraryThing member dougwood57
George Packer does a very good job tracing the ideological and political reasons behind the war, in particular the part that neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith played. He also details in heart-breaking detail the incompetence with which the 'post-war' has been executed.

Packer excels, howver, with his repeated interviews with Iraqis and soldiers that humanize the war in a way no one else has done by following about a dozen Iraqis through a series of interviews over a period of some two years. As a non-embedded reporter for the New Yorker magazine he was able to talk to Iraqis in their own homes (at least until things really fell apart and it became too unsafe for him and them to have an American visit their homes). The reader ends up deeply caring about these Iraqis after their long suffering under Saddam and now the war and 'post' war. I couldn't escape the thought that they deserve a better end than they are likely to get.

I found myself also wanting to read more about the war and by Packer. Fortunately, Packer continues to write about Iraq for the New Yorker.

The Assassin's Gate is a great work of extended journalism written under extremely difficult conditions. Not a happy story, but hugely important and informative.
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LibraryThing member rakerman
Most people, I think, want the Iraq War to be simple. Depending on your ideology, it's a mistake that started with lies, or a determined war for democracy.

George Packer demonstrates convincingly that either position is a vast oversimplification. There were many reasons people wanted to or decided to go to war, and there were many reasons that things went wrong.

Once the war is underway, the book documents the downward spiral that has led us to the current situation of civil war. Packer explores all the complexity and contradictions of the reality of Iraq, its shattered politics and broken people. He details the hard work of ordinary Iraqs, the CPA, and the American soldiers on the ground.

In terms of analysis, there are a few main themes:

1. The understanding of the realities of 21st century Iraq under Saddam was very poor outside of the country. In particular, Iraq exiles had rather lofty and unrealistic expectations of a democratic flowering that would fill the void immediately after Saddam was removed.

2. It seems clear that the plan at the top of the American administration was to get rid of Saddam and immediately replace him with a compliant Iraqi puppet government, led by Chalabi. Because of this, there was no plan for the post-war. They had assembled a small team that was supposed to hand everything over to the Iraqis, that was the entire plan.

As the situation changed on the ground, the reality filtered up to the top of the American leadership only in vague and distorted ways, and the postwar turned into bureaucratic bungling and inept management on a grand, tragic scale.

Having gotten to this point, it is really not clear to what extent the entire enterprise can be redeemed.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
This book is not, by a long shot, the last word on the meaning of the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq. However, it is the best description to date of how the idealists who dreamed of a better Iraq, the ideologues who dreamed of a revival of American hegemony, and the inscrutable core of the current administration interacted to produce the looming debacle in Iraq. That Packer still believes in the fight to build a better Iraq (though he now has little but disdain for the Bush administration) is a tribute to the man's idealism. A more cynical person might wonder when Packer is going to wise up about the prospects of Iraq being anything more than another unhappy Islamist state for a generation or so. This is speaking as someone who did believe that there was something to the humanitarian interventionist argument.… (more)
LibraryThing member gmicksmith
This is a first-rate account and one of the best of the Iraq conflict. Packer weaves the big-picture view of the conflict with the personal and everyday lives of combatants, victims, and those caught in the middle of the Iraq conflict. It features interesting sidelights into the personalities of his figures and includes discussion questions at the end which would work for a discussion group seeking to understand Iraq more fully.

Packer relates a compelling story, not the least of which is his account of Kanan Makiya (b.1949, Baghdad). Makiya is an Iraqi academic, who gained British nationality in 1982. He is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. As a former Saddamist exile, he was a prominent member of the Iraqi opposition, a "close friend" of the quixotic and notorious Ahmed Chalabi, and an influential proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. His life is documented in British journalist Nick Cohen's book What's Left (there is also information about Makiya in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, pp. 54-57, 108).

Makiya's Republic of Fear (1989) became a best-seller after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, in which he argues that Iraq had become a full-fledged totalitarian state, worse than despotic states such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia. His next book, The Monument (1991), is an essay on the aesthetics of power and kitsch.

Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993) was published under Makiya's own name. It was awarded the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on international relations published in English in 1993. According to a 2007 profile of Makiya in The New York Times Magazine, the 1993 book "posed a devastating critique of the Arab world's intelligentsia, whose anti-Americanism, Makiya argued, had prompted it to conspire in a massive, collective silence over Hussein’s dungeons."

Makiya is widely known to have been a strong proponent of the 2003 Iraq War and advocated for the "complete dismantling of the security services of the regime, leaving only the regular police force intact" (Cf. Transcript of Iraq Seminar with Richard Perle and Kanan Makiya" National Press Club, March 17, 2003. Accessed July 13, 2008). As U.S. forces took control during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, Makiya returned to Iraq under their aegis and was given the position of Advisor to the Iraq interim governing council by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Makiya is quoted as having said, "As I told the President on January 10th, I think [the troops] will be greeted with sweets and flowers in the first months and simply have very, very little doubts that that is the case." His support for the war followed an idealistic line, as recounted in the New York Times Magazine in 2007:

In the buildup to the Iraq war, Makiya, more than any single figure, made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do - to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.

If it sounded idealistic, Makiya went even further, arguing that an American invasion of Iraq could clear the ground for Western-style democracy. Years of war and murder had left Iraqis so thoroughly degraded, Makiya argued, that, once freed, they would throw off the tired orthodoxies of Arab politics and, in their despair, look to the West.

Edward Said, a professor of English at Columbia University and supporter of Palestinian rights, was a vocal critic of Makiya. Said contended that Makiya was a Trotskyist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but that he later "switched sides," profiting by designing buildings for Saddam Hussein. George Packer asserted in The Assassin's Gate that Said's accusations were untrue and Makiya had never worked for Saddam (although his father had). Said also claimed that Makiya mistranslated Arab intellectuals so he could condemn them for not speaking out against the crimes of Arab rulers. Makiya had earlier criticised Said for encouraging a sense of Muslim victimhood and offering inadequate censure to those in the Middle East who were themselves guilty of atrocities.

Related titles:
1. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks
2. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
3. Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon
4. Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour M. Hersh
5. State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward
6. The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 by Ron Suskind
7. Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann
8. Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward
9. Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony Shadid
10. Postwar by Tony Judt
11. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll
12. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
13. Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff
14. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich
15. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer
16. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
17. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
18. State Of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen
19. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin
20. Bush at War by Bob Woodward
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LibraryThing member Swampslogger
Book Review

Title: The Assassin’s Gate

Author: George Packer

The author is both tough-minded yet sufficiently sensitive to register all the complexities of the Iraqi debate. He is a chronicler and an intelligent guide. So says Christopher Hitchings on the book jacket.

What is generally lost in the “soundbite” type of reporting and the polemics that pass for discussion is the story of what the Iraqis have endured and are enduring. Here is where Packard excels.

The author has his own opinions and clearly states them but does not allow them to suppress nor exaggerate the conditions as he sees them. He welcomes the demise of Saddam but questions the wisdom of the war.

Packer was an up close witness to the prewar debates as well as the war’s carnage. He cuts past the simplistic recriminations and sets forth an objective analysis and commentary of the causes of the war, it’s ineptness at preventing chaos, the divisive nature of the tribal and religious factions in Iraq, and the cost in life and treasure on both sides.

There were key elements that occurred prior to the war that Packer learned from his contacts. Richard Haas, director of policy planning -- State Department, relates he became aware of more and more “bureaucratic chatter“. When he met was Condoleeza Rice on key foreign policy issues, the discussion on Iraq was cut short when he began to state the State Department’s misgivings about a war . “Save your breath” Rice interrupted. “The president has already made up his mind“. There was no weighing of pros and cons “the decision was not made -- it happened -- you can’t say when “.

One document written by Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor, contained a short eloquent statement of principles and a new passage on preemptive war. This was immediately taken as the justification for war with Iraq. The new Bush doctrine. This was a combination of Bush (one’s) realism and the neocon’s idealism. An internationalism combining our values and national interests with the protection of peace by preempting threats to peace. In doing so it would, if possible, use a coalition of the willing or if need be, go it alone.

Another important figure was Andrew Erdmann, an academic who wrote a Ph.D. thesis at Harvard. Haas had taught with Erdman’s adviser plus his name was passed along by Paul’s Zelikow. Haas asked him to write a memo on postwar reconstruction. He applied the ideas of his dissertation to a series of case studies from two world wars through recent conflicts such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon a new unit, Office of Special Plans was overseen by Douglas Fieth, Pentagon undersecretary for policy. Fieth, out of government for 20 years had been fired by Reagan’s national security adviser William Clark but then was brought to the Pentagon by Richard Pearle. These activities and writings were devoted to bolstering the hard-line policies of the Likud party. Fieth was a card-carrying Likud member, according to Packer.

“Special Plans” was an idea of Wolfowitz and goes back to 1976 when he advised the CIA and was more alarmist about the Soviets than the intelligence agencies. The operation was led by David Wurmser and F. Michael Maloof, who worked for Pearle under Reagan and the Defense Department. Wurmser collected raw data largely from defectors in the Iraqi National Congress (an exile group) in order to prove the assumption of Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda and the likelihood he’d hand off W. M.D. to terrorists. Their job was to prove the assumptions with “found facts“.

In the eyes of the Pentagon civilians the intelligence agencies were held in very low esteem. A new method was to be used starting with the higher insights of political philosophy rather than evidence from the fallen world of social science.

It is interesting to follow the activities and functions of many of these individuals. Wurmser ended up in Cheney’s office. Maloof had his clearance revoked but his work wound up as bullet points in policy papers from Special Plans and piped to the White House directly by Luti and Schulsky (Fieth’s buddies). The vice president’s office was allied with the neocons through Scooter Libby and Rice’s national security director for the Middle East, Elliot Abrams.

In this fashion the intelligence gathering and its utilization occurred. Apparently general debate was avoided in which unwanted objections might contravene the foregone decisions.

Luti, a former navy captain, a Newt Gingrich aid and Cheney adviser, was a strong supporter of war with Iraq. Because Zinni, the former head of Central Command and Bush’s envoy to the Middle East expressed doubt about an Iraq war Anthony Luti, in conversation, called Zinni a traitor.

Packer ties several other scholars and experts on the Middle East together with the Iraqi National Congress. This group theorized about means for changing the complexion of the Middle East. Ahmad Chilabi was a leading figure in this group and the darling of the Pentagon and the CIA until he fell out of favor.

Troop strength, as suggested by a Marine major at the National Security Council, based on experience in Kosovo, was 500,000 to secure Iraq. State and Defense were at odds over every issue of the postwar period. Richard Haas of State cited failure on Rice’s part as the National Security Adviser. Instead of helping to reconcile the differences between State and Defense, and introduce arguments that deserved consideration, Rice proved more skillful at seconding the president than obliging him to consider a range of ideas and resolving them in a coherent manner.

All through the lead up to the war ideas or evidences contrary to the progression to war was effectively ignored. The avowed antipathy for “nation building” during the election campaign was unceremoniously dumped as plans progressed for “regime change“.

The Pentagon and Oval Office proved bulletproof against concerted opinions of a wide range of advisory agencies that agreed that security and reconstruction of postwar Iraq required large numbers of troops as well as international cooperation.

The expectations that the White House and Department of Defense, Rumsfeld, held were largely wishful thinking based on their own theoretical concepts and the misinformation given by the exile groups. The war was to be short (“shock and awe“) and the Armed Forces welcomed as liberators with the withdrawal of the forces in quick succession. “Mission accomplished”. All caveats and cautionary notions were simply dismissed.

I’m curious about the author’s ability to quote Oval Office conversations. Is he a mouse in the woodwork,?. I assume he is quoting persons present.

Please read “ The Assassins Gate” because it contains much detail regarding the people involved and gives nuances I’m too impatient to put down here.
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LibraryThing member chriskrycho
Packer tells it like it is, with some strange but often helpful quirks of perspective – a lefty who supported the war in Iraq, but was disenchanted with the way it was conducted.
LibraryThing member Periodista
As good as it gets.


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