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Occupational Hazards: a review of The Assassins Gate by George Packer (FAREED ZAKARIA, 10/30/05, NY Times Book Review)

Packer begins his absorbing account with the ideas that led the United States to war. A few neoconservatives, most prominently Paul Wolfowitz, had long believed that ousting Saddam Hussein would pave the way for a grand reordering of the Middle East, pushing it away from tyranny and anti-Americanism and toward modernity and democracy. Others, including Douglas Feith, explained that eliminating Hussein would be particularly good for Israel’s security. But the broadest reason to intervene in Iraq was that it was a bold use of American power that mixed force with idealism. Many neoconservatives were Reaganites who believed in an assertive, even aggressive, American posture in the world. For them the 1990’s – under Bush père and Clinton alike – had been years of retreat. “They were supremely confident,” Packer writes, “all they needed was a mission.”

But they wouldn’t have had one without 9/11. As one of the neoconservatives Packer interviewed correctly points out, “September 11 is the turning point. Not anything else.” After 9/11, Bush – and many Americans, including many liberals – were searching for a use of the nation’s power that mixed force with idealism and promised to reorder the Middle East. In Iraq they found it.

Packer collects his articles from The New Yorker but goes well beyond them. His book lacks a tight thesis or structure and as a result meanders at times, petering out in its final sections. But this is more than made up for by the sheer integrity and intelligence of its reporting, from Washington, New York, London and, of course, Iraq. Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq. In reading him we see the staggering gap between abstract ideas and concrete reality.

Hard as it is to believe, the Bush administration took on the largest foreign policy project in a generation with little planning or forethought. It occupied a foreign country of 25 million people in the heart of the Middle East pretty much on the fly. Packer, who was in favor of the war, reserves judgment and commentary in most of the book but finally cannot contain himself: “Swaddled in abstract ideas . . . indifferent to accountability,” those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq “turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one,” he writes. “When things went wrong, they found other people to blame.”

Packer recounts the prewar discussions in the State Department’s “Future of Iraq Project,” which produced an enormous document outlining the political challenges in governing Iraq. He describes Drew Erdmann’s memo, written for Colin Powell, analyzing previous postwar reconstructions in the 20th century. Erdmann’s conclusion was that success depended on two factors, establishing security and having international support. These internal documents were mirrored by several important think-tank studies that all made similar points, specifically on the need for large-scale forces to maintain security. One would think that this Hobbesian message – that order is the first requisite of civilization – would appeal to conservatives. In fact all of this careful planning and thinking was ignored or dismissed.

Part of the problem was the brutal and debilitating struggle between the State Department and the Defense Department, producing an utterly dysfunctional policy process. The secretary of the Army, Thomas White, who was fired after the invasion, explained to Packer that with the Defense Department “the first issue was, we’ve got to control this thing – so everyone else was suspect.” The State Department was regarded as the enemy, so what chance was there of working with other countries? The larger problem was that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (and probably Dick Cheney) doggedly believed nation-building was a bad idea, the Clinton administration has done too much of it, and the American military should stop doing it. Rumsfeld explained this view in a couple of speeches and op-ed articles that were short on facts and long on polemics. But how to square this outlook with invading Iraq? Assume away the need for nation-building. Again, White explains: “We had the mind-set that this would be a relatively straightforward, manageable task, because this would be a war of liberation, and therefore reconstruction would be short-lived.” Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Larry Di Rita, went to Kuwait in April 2003 and told the American officials waiting there that the State Department had messed up Bosnia and Kosovo and that the Bush administration intended to hand over power to Iraqis and leave within three months.

That the main idea has worked out brilliantly is demonstrated from the polling places for the Iraqi constitution to Libya to Palestine to Lebanon to Syria to Pakistan, to the UN and so on and so forth. The one failure came in the form of mounting an Occupation rather than turning power over to an interim government acceptable to Ayatollah Sistani ASAP.

MORE:
‘The Right War?’ and ‘A Matter of Principle’: Everybody Is a Realist Now (JAMES TRAUB, 10/30/05, NY Times Book Review)

A decade ago, the question of humanitarian intervention, above all in Bosnia, split both left and right into antiwar “realists” and prowar moralists, or “Wilsonians.” What is clear from these two volumes is that 9/11 fused the two arguments into one, for enemies embodying a totalitarian and obscurantist culture had reached out to deal us a terrible blow. This Islamofascist culture was as dangerous to us as to its domestic victims. President Bush, who entered office as a realist vowing to put “interests” ahead of “values,” became the chief exponent of a revived Wilsonianism. “We support . . . democracy in the Middle East,” he said, “because it is a founding principle, and because it is in our interest.”

Debate on the war is now, in effect, organized around this view – whether it is valid, whether it can be applied to Iraq, whether the Bush administration has hopelessly botched the execution. “Democracy promotion” has cleaved opinion on both sides, as humanitarian intervention did before. On the right, the “paleos” dismiss the project as a dangerous pipe dream – a form of “democratic imperialism,” in Patrick Buchanan’s phrase. [….]

The debate inside the left is of course a very different one, but also involves an absolutism that will not take account of individual cases. The absolutism, in this case, is an abhorrence of American power – an abhorrence greatly magnified by hatred for George W. Bush and all his works. The journalist Ian Buruma, though not a supporter of the war, has accused the fashionable left of practicing a form of moral racism, in which the brutalities of the West provoke outrage but the far greater crimes of third-world monsters like Saddam Hussein are passed over in silence. A magisterial nonchalance marches under the banner of moral superiority. Apropos the novelist Julian Barnes’s comment that the war wasn’t worth the loss of a single life, Norman Geras, a British political theorist, mordantly observes, “Not one, eh? So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial shredders.” But of course to admit otherwise would be to credit the Americans, and even the Bush administration, with moral insight and the capacity for good. How much more satisfying to revel in the administration’s richly deserved comeuppance!

A Matter of Principle” will be sobering reading to many American liberals, especially those who took comfort in the near-universal European opposition to the war. Among the most powerful essays in the volume are those by French or German scholars taking their own countrymen to task. With the threat of the cold war over, writes Richard Herzinger, an editor of Die Zeit, the old cry of “Never again!” had lost its meaning of never again submission in favor of never again war – as if force itself were the great peril, and thus America, the most forceful nation, the chief enemy of peace. This is what Robert Kagan means when he describes the Kantian paradise Europeans have sought to take refuge in. They, no less than the Americans, and perhaps more, fit 9/11 into the world as they already understood it, and as they wished it to be.

Do we truly know what is required in order to defend democratic principles in the face of attack from those who consider themselves divinely inspired? (I am referring, of course, to Islamic fundamentalists, not the Bush administration.) “A Matter of Principle” includes a backbone-stiffening contribution from Adam Michnik, a political philosopher, a founder of Solidarity in Poland and an authentic hero of the democratic left. Asked whether it isn’t “paradoxical” to advocate violence as a means to advance human rights, Michnik snaps, “I can’t remember any text of mine where I said one should fight Hitler without violence; I’m not an idiot. . . . In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries.”

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