Courtesy Reuters

Writing of Wrongs

In This Review

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

By George Packer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
467 pp. $26.00

Was the War in Iraq Doomed From the Start?

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

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