It may be too early to tell whether the 2003 war in Iraq will benefit or hurt Iraq in the long term, but its short-term consequences are already grim -- grim enough to warrant a debate about whether they were inevitable or the result of stunning ineptitude. Those who believe the project was doomed from the start argue that only the politically naive and the historically illiterate could have contemplated constructing a working democracy out of the ruins of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. A moment's reflection on the problems that generally accompany violent regime changes, especially those triggered by outside forces, or a passing acquaintance with Iraq's history, including the United Kingdom's attempt to pacify the country in the early 1920s, should have chastened even Washington's most eager advocates for intervention. No region offered a more forbidding setting for experimentation with democratization than the Middle East, with all its ethnic and cultural divisions, and no country within the region held less promise than Iraq, brutalized as it was by decades of oppression, wars, and sanctions.

But if, somehow, a relatively orderly, prosperous, and democratic Iraq ever emerges from the current chaos, the pessimistic assumption that societies can never escape the constraints of their pasts will be firmly refuted. Indeed, in some lights it looks as though the Bush administration set up the reconstruction of Iraq as a scientific experiment to see if its alternative, radical, and much more optimistic hypothesis that a fundamental transformation was possible could survive the most demanding test; it seems to have gone out of its way to make the project as difficult as possible. Advisers and observers who warned early on of the hazards of occupation and argued that such a bold undertaking called for special efforts were disregarded and often derided. Instead of mobilizing the whole U.S. government to ensure that the hard questions were asked and answered, the principal figures in the Bush administration made a determined effort to ignore available expertise, including serious preparatory work by State Department officials and others. The people whose opinions were sought were chosen on narrow grounds, and they often were quite ignorant or were acting out of self-interest. Iraqi exiles who claimed that the liberated people of Iraq would cheerfully cooperate with the U.S. occupation were taken far too seriously.

To the Bush administration's cavalier assumption that Iraq could be transformed without any extraordinary U.S. efforts, other offenses can be added: the divisive diplomacy that accompanied Washington's rush to war, which tarnished the invasion's legitimacy and then limited international support for an extended occupation; the Pentagon's refusal to commit more troops for postwar reconstruction when so few had won the war; inadequate training, in both doctrine and skills, to help U.S. soldiers transition from combat to peacekeeping; disregard for the prospects (and the consequences) of the looting and disarray that followed the fall of Saddam's regime; the decision to disband the defeated Iraqi army; the failure to fully appreciate the implications of excluding former members of the ruling Baath Party from key administrative posts; the inability to foresee the public relations disaster and the ethical morass that would inevitably result from treating Iraqi prisoners in ways reminiscent of Saddam's methods. The list is not exhaustive.

ENDS AND MEANS

As he explores the war's intellectual and political origins in The Assassins' Gate, George Packer shows how advocates of toppling Saddam failed to address, or even acknowledge, the problems that would arise from installing a new regime in Iraq. He describes the consequences of such poor preparation in a series of dispatches from Iraq, where he traveled several times between 2003 and 2005 as a reporter for The New Yorker.

Packer was not the only observer at the time to have convinced himself that the overthrow of such an obnoxious regime and the attempt to build a working democracy in Iraq were noble causes. Like many liberals, he acquired during the 1990s a belief in the virtues of occasionally using force to make the world a better place. Humanitarian interventions, such as those carried out in Bosnia and Kosovo, had sought to alleviate suffering and promote human rights, with varying degrees of success.

In the case of Iraq, Packer was also inspired by the burning idealism and intellectual courage of the exiled Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya, a strong advocate of intervention. Packer recognized all that was wrong with the buildup to the invasion: it was "rushed," he writes, "dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances." And the war was not waged to promote human rights and democracy. But it could bring good, Packer believed: "I wanted Iraqis to be let out of prison; I wanted to see a homicidal dictator removed from power before he committed mass murder again; I wanted to see if an open society stood a chance of taking root in the heart of the Arab world." The intensity and moral energy of this enthralling book derive from Packer's twin roles as a liberal supporter of the war and a chronicler of its disappointments, and from his dual commitment to a noble cause and the reporter's craft.

The source of the war's disappointments is the fact that the priorities of liberal hawks such as Packer were different from those of the government. Although it was not unreasonable to suppose that the Bush administration would have prepared for a post-Saddam Iraq, it soon became apparent that it had failed to do so. As the U.S.-led military campaign moved toward its inevitable victory, Packer interviewed prospective members of the U.S. occupation's management team in Iraq. They were kicking their heels, excluded from top-level discussions about what turned out to be the wrong questions anyway (such as how to cope with refugees fleeing urban combat). Still, they attempted to put Iraq back together, working out of the looted shells of government buildings, often relying more on idealism than on relevant experience. One young man divided his time between drafting the Iraqi constitution and filling out applications for law school. U.S. officials dealt warily with the would-be Iraqi politicians (also neophytes and also suspicious of their counterparts) who had materialized from among the ranks of exiles based in the West or from the more enclosed world of local clerics. Many of the Iraqis Packer met were hostile; others were waiting, incredulously, for the all-conquering Americans to turn on the electricity, get the water to run, fix buildings, and keep the streets safe.

A telling moment involves the hapless retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). On April 28, 2003, Garner stood before 350 Iraqis in the Baghdad Convention Center, after Makiya had told the skeptical crowd that Iraq needed a liberal constitution. "Who's in charge of our politics?" someone asked Garner. "You're in charge," he replied, prompting, Packer reports, an "audible gasp in the room." No one was in charge, and the Americans had no idea what to do next.

Meanwhile, the Americans were also frustrated and waiting for the political lights to come on. They criticized the Iraqis for their lack of gratitude and initiative and deplored their inability to rise to the challenge of this great reconstruction project. U.S. soldiers complained bitterly about the unreliability and irrationality of the people they had come to help, some of whom squabbled among themselves or connived with insurgents. One outburst sums up the deterioration in relations: "An Iraqi came up to me and said it pisses them off to have to wait for military traffic," a U.S. soldier said to Packer. "I told him, 'If you wouldn't blow us up with car bombs, we'd let you pass us.' Shitheads." If all ends in anarchy, civil war, and a speedy coalition retreat, no doubt a more delicately phrased version of this narrative will become a major part of Washington's political salvage operation.

Packer rejects the idea that the great Iraq project was destined to fail or that the fault for its troubles lies largely with the Iraqis. As evidence that things could have been different, he finds many flickering lights that a better-orchestrated occupation could have turned on. A Christian doctor who once peddled big ideas is now looking to leave the country, exhausted by religious demands about how his family should behave and fearful that armed men might soon challenge his authority at work. A doctor turned translator, who calls himself "Sushi" because he is half-Sunni half-Shiite, has grown sympathetic to the insurgency yet still wants to study journalism in the United States. The chance to vote in the national elections of January 2005 inspired many Iraqis, but so little changed afterward that the impetus was soon lost. The unfolding story of Iraq is a dismal account of dashed hopes, constant frustrations, and growing dangers. "The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is," Packer writes. "For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive."

THE REASONS WHY

All depends, of course, on what the authors of this war were trying to achieve. Not long after the Garner incident at the Baghdad Convention Center, Washington decided that it needed a tougher and savvier operator in Baghdad. It replaced Garner with L. Paul Bremer, and the ORHA with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Bremer knew even less about Iraq than Garner and was given as little time to prepare for his new task as was Garner to get used to his dismissal. A few weeks later, Garner was brought to the White House for a meeting with George W. Bush, bearing a short and upbeat memorandum (to ensure he would be congratulated on a job well done). The cast of characters responsible for the war also attended: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Not one of them took the opportunity to ask Garner what the situation in Iraq was really like or whether the country was on the road to stability. As the brief meeting ended, Packer reports, the president joked, "You want to do Iran for the next one?" "No, sir," Garner replied, "me and the boys are holding out for Cuba." The vice president had said nothing, and as Garner left the room, Packer writes, "he caught Cheney's wicked little smile." Garner concluded from the episode that "Bush knew only what Cheney let into his office."

This is by no means Packer's most depressing story, but it is one of the more chilling ones. It points to Cheney as the evil genius behind the war (a belief that is now almost received wisdom) and suggests the condition that made Cheney's influence possible: Bush's chronic lack of curiosity even about matters dealing with the greatest gamble of his presidency. The account reveals Bush's readiness to live, along with his advisers, in a make-believe world removed from the dead-serious business they set in motion. Bush's insouciance created the space in which Cheney and Rumsfeld could operate; part of Packer's account is about the two men's efforts to deny others entry into this space. Cheney and Rumsfeld sought to marginalize and diminish the influence of officials, from the State Department or the UN, with any claim to involvement. They dominated the policy process, drawing on their formidable expertise in the exercise of power, first acquired in the Nixon administration.

But to what purpose? Cheney's stance remains a puzzle. Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, recently declared his old friend impossible to understand: "Dick Cheney I don't know anymore," he told The New Yorker last fall. Cheney had vigorously defended the decision not to topple Saddam in 1991, using arguments that should have seemed equally pertinent in 2003. Washington failed to support an insurrection against Saddam in March 1991, when it had the chance; instead it held back and waited, forlorn, for a coup that never came. Without knowing it, by doing so it also set the terms for the 2003 campaign. The survival of Saddam's regime through the 1990s was a feat of almost intolerable defiance, a symbol of the limitations of U.S. power that retrospectively cast a shadow on Washington's 1991 decision.

One conclusion drawn from the attacks of September 11, 2001, was that al Qaeda should become the object of Washington's single-minded focus and that Saddam had become yesterday's enemy. But another view, to which Cheney and Rumsfeld soon subscribed, was that the attacks made Saddam even more dangerous because al Qaeda provided a new outlet for his aggression. Cheney and Rumsfeld were not prepared to accept that there was no compelling evidence of Saddam's hand in the attacks and that the links between al Qaeda and the secular government in Baghdad were at most tentative. Here was a man with a proven interest in acquiring the deadliest weapons, who by all accounts was still trying to do so and was no longer feeling constrained by tepid UN measures. He had to be stopped.

Leaving aside problems with the evidence supporting this gloomy projection -- which was supplemented by innuendo and stretched to the breaking point -- it is clear that removing Saddam from power had little to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people. The connection between the two was mentioned, of course, usually with great enthusiasm, but emancipation was not the reason the Bush administration went to war or invoked international law to justify it. For Cheney and Rumsfeld, the war was about solving the Saddam problem rather than the Iraq problem, about bringing security rather than justice, about toppling a regime rather than building one. After all, the Bush administration had proudly said that it was not in the business of nation building and would happily leave it to others. Not only did Bush administration officials give little forethought to the difficulties Iraq might face after the war; it did not want others to reflect on those issues any more than they did for fear that such attention might undermine the claim that a short, decisive victory could be achieved with remarkably few troops. It suited the White House to take at face value assertions from Iraqi exiles that solving postwar problems would be relatively straightforward.

It was only after the war, once it became evident that Saddam had been living in a fantasy of his own and his regime had actually posed little immediate threat, that the Bush administration started to stress the promotion of human rights and democracy as rationales for the U.S. involvement in Iraq. For a while, these motives became the war's defining cause. Unfortunately, the insurgency then grew so serious that the central justification for continued U.S. involvement became defeating terrorism within Iraq -- a problem that had never been mentioned before for the distressing reason that it is a product of the war's botched conduct. In the future, the United States' objectives in Iraq may be redefined yet again, according to whatever turns out to deny insurgents any claim to victory.

In 2003, liberal hawks such as Packer had an uncomfortable choice to make: support a liberal antiwar movement that could tolerate the survival of Saddam's regime or support the illiberal Bush administration, which could not. Caught up in arguments about whether to go to war, they failed to ask enough hard questions about what it would really take to turn Iraq around and point it in a better direction. Like many others, they were beguiled by the assurances of charismatic exiles that there was no reason to worry. And in any event, as a minority, they were in no position to impose any conditions.

Today, they still cling to the hope that, although it does not feel this way yet, eventually the war will turn out to be a good deed. If instead the outcome vindicates the defeatists who claim that the Middle East resists all attempts at positive change, then the war in Iraq will be used for years to come as a somber warning about the sad consequences of misplaced idealism. Such an argument would be hard to refute because there is no telling what might have become of Iraq if the requirements for successful regime change had guided U.S. policy from the start. Violent and divisive conditions on the ground might still have overwhelmed the most carefully designed and sensitively implemented plans -- but they might not have. So pity the liberal hawks, who now feel a little foolish for having entrusted their dreams to the incompetent crew that runs the U.S. government. And pity even more the Iraqi people, who deserved far better.

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