Reflections on Three Years of War in Iraq

Writer George Packer (Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq) tells Linda Wertheimer the Bush administration had little sense of how hard it would be to succeed in Iraq... and his own views on the subject have changed, as well.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is on vacation. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This weekend marks the third anniversary of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. We're going to use this time to look back over the past three years and talk about what has been achieved and what has not. In the run up to the war, we heard a building series of warnings, counter-warnings and outright threats.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): The history of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda. The history and the present threat are real.

Mr. SADDAM HUSSEIN (Former Iraqi Leader): The people and rulers of Baghdad have resolved to compel the Mongols of this age to commit suicide on its wars and make the confrontation.

President BUSH: On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.

WERTHEIMER: The voices of President Bush, Saddam Hussein, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Three years later, there is still fighting in Baghdad. A constitution now exists, elections have been held, but in many parts of Iraq, the infrastructure of peace and prosperity is still missing.

George Packer has covered the war for the New Yorker Magazine. His book, Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq was published in the fall. And George Packer joins us from New York City. Welcome.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Staff Writer, New Yorker Magazine): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Right now polling indicates that the American people's support for the war is at an all time low. Do you have a sense that the American people have given up on the war in Iraq, or do you think that an event or series of events might change that?

Mr. PACKER: I think that no single event is likely to happen that could turn around the slide in public support. And that slide is directly, I think, connected to the PR campaign the administration has waged from the beginning that has created unrealistic expectations and has created what used to be called a credibility gap.

And because of the nature of this war, which is an insurgency, which means it's going to be years and years of fighting, perhaps low intensity fighting, I just don't see how any event in Iraq is going to come along that could change that momentum.

WERTHEIMER: The United States had an unsuccessful, to say the least, war in Vietnam, which left its mark on American foreign policy and on the thinking of the American people for many years. What sort of stamp do you think this war leaves us with?

Mr. PACKER: An Iraq that is in chaos, that is in civil war or that is sparking a regional war is going to be both a moral and a security responsibility for the United States for years and years. This one is not going to let us go home to lick our wounds, and that should be taken into account when Americans think about how long we should stay committed to this effort.

WERTHEIMER: You've described yourself, George Packer, as ambivalently pro-war at the beginning, that on balance you thought taking down Saddam Hussein was probably the right thing to do. As you look back on your views at the beginning of this process, do you see places where your own thinking or your own assumptions were flawed in some way?

Mr. PACKER: Absolutely. I think I had too much faith in the administration's ability to do this, although my faith was not strong to begin with. And I think I had an unrealistic sense of what Iraq after Saddam would be like and what essentially the state of Iraqi society and thinking would be. And what we've had instead over the last three years is disastrous incompetence by the Bush administration and a really fragmented damaged Iraqi society that has not overcome its history of violence. In fact, it seems to be plunging deeper into it.

Those were great misjudgments on my part, which were largely, I think, a factor of hope, of wanting this to succeed, because I thought the alternatives were also pretty terrible. The question is, if you couldn't do it right, should you have done it at all? And I think for American interests, given how it has gone, it has been a mistake. It's very hard to see how this has served our interests in the foreseeable future.

For Iraqis it's a harder question. Most Iraqis still say they would not go back and reverse the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. And then in the next breath they say, but we deeply resent everything that's happened since then.

WERTHEIMER: George Packer is a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine. Thank you very much.

Mr. PACKER: My pleasure.

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