I finished reading George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate on the plane back from Europe yesterday, and discovered when I got back home that Kevin Drum had already said half of what I wanted to say about it. Anti-war people should read this book – it really does a terrific job of setting out the complexities of politics in Iraq. Pro-war leftists and liberals should read this book too, and reflect carefully on Packer’s documentation of how badly “democracy-building” was implemented in practice. But there’s something quite troubling about the book’s rhetorical set-up. On one level, the book resembles Jason DeParle’s book on welfare reform, American Dream. It’s a meditation on the relationship between the abstract debates of policy wonks and intellectuals, how ideas from these debates get implemented (with quite astounding incompetence in this particular instance), and the results that implementation have for individuals’ lives. But on another, it’s an indirect defence of a particular policy stance. In the book’s closing pages, Packer sets out his indictment of the Bush administration:
I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.
This isn’t only an indictment. It’s also an apologia for a claim that is never directly defended – that the project of bringing democracy to Iraq could have worked if it had been executed more competently. Packer has documented over four hundred odd pages just how bad the implementation was. But proving the negative doesn’t prove the positive, and Packer’s method of presentation allows him to avoid making the case that deposing the Hussein regime in 2003 could feasibly have brought democracy to Iraq. There’s a strong case to be made that this wasn’t doable in the first place. Packer presents Rumsfeld’s decision to override Shinseki, and invade Iraq with a minimal number of troops, as one of the main causes of the current disaster. But as Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias argue
Perhaps the founding myth of the incompetence argument is that the postwar mess could have been avoided had the United States deployed more troops to Iraq. … A RAND Corporation effort … concluded that a ratio of 20 foreigners for every 1,000 natives would have been necessary to stabilize Iraq. … The 20-to-1,000 ratio implies the presence of about 500,000 soldiers in Iraq. That’s far more than it would have been possible for the United States to deploy. Sustaining a given number of troops in a combat situation requires twice that number to be dedicated to the mission, so that soldiers can rotate in and out of theater. . As there are only 1 million soldiers in the entire Army, a 500,000-troop deployment would imply that literally everyone—from the National Guard units currently assisting with disaster relief on the Gulf Coast to those serving in Afghanistan, Korea, and Europe to the bureaucrats doing staff work in the Pentagon and elsewhere—would be dedicated to the mission. This is plainly impossible.
Packer doesn’t address this argument, nor does he address the arguments more generally of the anti-war side with anything approaching seriousness. While he acknowledges in passing that a couple of anti-war people were sincere and thoughtful, he doesn’t even begin to consider their claims, and the implication of those claims for his own position. This isn’t to dismiss the book out of hand. As Kevin says, it should be required reading for anyone concerned with the Iraq war and its aftermath. It’s far more than another statement of the incompetence dodge. But it’s also much less than it should have been.
Update: thanks to Jay Conner in comments for pointing me towards this interview with Packer in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Packer qualifies his statement that “the Iraq War was always winnable; it still is,” but only by saying that he “would not have written that line in the present tense” given recent developments. As best as I understand him, he isn’t prepared to revisit his belief that the Iraq war could have been won had it been conducted differently at the outset. I fully agree with Packer when he argues that “what liberals need to do now is argue very strongly for the U.S. to remain engaged in a responsible internationalist way around the world.” But if we’re to have the “serious national conversation” that Packer wants, he, and others like him, need to think more seriously about what the Iraq debacle means for the possibility conditions of pro-democratic intervention (this is also what I take Yglesias and Rosenfeld to be arguing in their piece).