'New Yorker' Writer Packer on Historic Iraq Polls
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
George Packer has covered Iraq for The New Yorker magazine, and he has now written a book, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." He joins us from our New York bureau.
George Packer, tomorrow's referendum on a constitution--how important a watershed for postwar Iraq, if this is postwar Iraq?
Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Author, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq"): I think it's important mostly in whether it brings in a portion of the Sunni electorate in Iraq or further antagonizes and alienates them. And there've been mixed signals in the last few days about whether things are moving in the direction of more political consensus or more division and fragmentation. And I think the more important election will be the one in December, when the Sunnis have a chance to make up for their mistake in boycotting last January's election and can actually take a place at the table. But if the constitutional referendum tells the Sunnis that their voices don't matter and they don't then put their hats in the ring for December, then I think the political process is in very serious trouble.
SIEGEL: Your book subtitled "America in Iraq" is not just about things that happened in Iraq but about thinking that transpired in the United States about going to war in Iraq, why one should go to war in Iraq and what to do afterwards. How would you describe your own thinking over the years and how it's evolved?
Mr. PACKER: Well, Iraq was not on my radar, other than during the Gulf War, for a long time, except in the form of a man named Kanan Makiya, who is an important figure in the history of the Iraq War and who I became friends with. And Kanan made me see Iraq as an important human rights issue and a moral issue as well as, obviously, a strategic one. And in the run-up to the war, I had as many misgivings about failing to do anything when there was an opportunity as I did about the competence of the administration that was going to take us into the war and about the consequences of that. I thought it was an extremely difficult decision, and I found myself distrusting people who were certain about it one way or the other.
SIEGEL: And now, today?
Mr. PACKER: Well, I've been to Iraq four times, and I've watched it deteriorate and become more dangerous and more difficult for Iraqis. And I have to say I'm quite gloomy. I have the sense that Iraq is already in the middle of a low-grade civil war that could become much more large-scale and violent.
SIEGEL: You mentioned Kanan Makiya, and at one point in the book you write, `More than anyone else, Kanan Makiya always guided my thinking. And I always found it easier to imagine a happy outcome when I was within earshot of him.' You and, the record should show, many other American journalists.
Mr. PACKER: Kanan is a powerful moral figure. If he were a Czech, he would be Vaclav Havel, but he's an Iraqi, and he was unlucky in his friends in the Bush administration. And I would say that he made some political mistakes in the friends that he got close to in the Bush administration. And he also allowed himself to become a little bit too enthusiastic about the prospects of postwar Iraq when, I think, at the same time he probably knew better. If you read his writings, they show that he knew exactly how damaged that country was. But he also became a political man, and he had the ear of the president. And for someone whose whole life has been spent trying to essentially liberate his own country from tyranny, it was an opportunity he simply couldn't resist.
SIEGEL: But you put your finger right on a distinction: Is Iraq, either by virtue of its history or its culture, somehow fundamentally different from what is today the Czech Republic, where democracy has taken root, or are there universal principles that can be applied in both places? And many of the neoconservative advocates of the war in Iraq would say there are, and we should stop being condescending toward people like Iraqis and not think that they can handle democracy.
Mr. PACKER: Well, that's exactly the key philosophical question, and the Iraq War seems to be an argument for local experience and local knowledge and for not becoming too determined to pursue universal goods at the expense of local conditions. But I don't want to go too far in that direction because then you end up essentially with the position that, `Well, they're bound to be like that. They've always been like that, and nothing can change,' when, in fact, countries all over the world have changed their political cultures, and Iraq also might change its political culture. It's just dangerous to go into such an incredible roll of the dice, as the Iraq War was, without being very sure that you have taken care of as many consequences as you can possibly predict. And, instead, the administration ignored almost every bad consequence that was presented to it.
SIEGEL: Among the things that Washington got wrong in Iraq, the one whose consequences US forces are still dealing with and Iraqis are still dealing with, is that far from being greeted universally as liberators, a persistent resistance grew up against the US presence in Iraq. Was it at all anticipated?
Mr. PACKER: It was anticipated by the Central Intelligence Agency in a couple of its prewar analyses. But not only was it not anticipated by the Pentagon and the White House, it was actually denied for months and months, long after anyone who'd spent time in Iraq knew that a very serious insurgency had formed and that it was going to be a strategic threat to the US project in Iraq. And, instead, the news was so unwelcome in Washington that it was resisted for--I would argue, until April of 2004 when practically the whole country exploded in insurrection. And at that point the Pentagon finally realized it had to get serious about counterinsurgency, which meant serious training of Iraqi forces. By then they were already a year behind the curve, and the insurgents had gained the upper hand, and the Americans had lost the strategic advantages that had come with the rapid fall of the regime. And we've been playing catch-up ever since then.
SIEGEL: George Packer, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. PACKER: It was my pleasure.
SIEGEL: George Packer of The New Yorker magazine is the author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq."
MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You can check out questions and answers on tomorrow's referendum in Iraq and find out about the constitution itself. Go to our Web site, npr.org.