MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Baghdad, suicide bombers killed at least 33 people today when they exploded a car bomb at a cafe popular with Iraqi police. My colleague Alex Chadwick has been having a series of conversations about the Iraq War and America's role in it. That's also the subject of a new book by New Yorker writer George Packer. It's called "The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq." Packer spoke with Alex earlier this week.

ALEX CHADWICK reporting:

George Packer, what was your own view of the war before it began?

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (The New Yorker; Author, "The Assassin's Gate"): I was pretty ambivalent about it, ambivalent enough that I actually never took a public position because I just didn't feel strongly enough to think I need to push this in a certain direction. I had fears, and I had hopes. I had fears that the Bush administration would not be able to do this. I had fears about the regional reaction, certainly about the inevitable consequences of war. But my hopes slightly overrode my fears because I also dearly wanted to see a tyranny removed and the chance of a democratic government in the Arab world and the strategic threat over the long run eliminated. So I was really divided and consider myself to have been ambivalently pro-war.

CHADWICK: Early on in the book you quote a former director of policy planning at the State Department, Richard Haas, as saying that he would go to his grave not knowing why we went to war in Iraq. This was the man who was in charge of policy planning at the State Department when we did go to war. But you do conclude that the administration knew why it was going to war. Explain that, would you?

Mr. PACKER: I call it the Rashomon of wars because there were as many views of why the war was going to be fought as there were people at top levels. But I think, in the end, what this war was about was not weapons of mass destruction, not even Saddam's supposed ties to al-Qaeda. It was a desire among a small group of people in key positions in the administration to change the history and politics of the Middle East, to essentially realign the Middle East away from extremism, both of the secular and religious varieties, and toward the West, especially toward the United States.

CHADWICK: Those officials were Vice President Cheney above all, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld...

Mr. PACKER: I would say Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who I think had the bigger strategic vision than anyone, and ultimately President Bush. I mean, we think of President Bush as coming into office not particularly interested in foreign affairs. And as much as he was, it was a kind of imitation of his father's great-power realism. But on September 11th, George W. Bush became a neoconservative, and it was he who drove the Iraq War. He was asking within days, even hours, of the 9/11 attacks, `What about Saddam? What about Iraq's role?' So I think to see him as captive to his advisers is wrong. He was driving it, but there were people around him who'd been thinking about this well before September 11th.

CHADWICK: The war did go as the administration had predicted: very rapid; very few, relatively speaking, casualties. But the aftermath of the war--you write about a process in which there was essentially no planning for what would happen after the fighting stopped and the Americans occupied it. That just doesn't seem possible.

Mr. PACKER: There was planning. There was planning in various agencies: State Department, the National Security Council. The key thing is the central officials--Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and let's add Douglas Feith at the Pentagon--did not want America to get involved in nation-building, a dirty word in this administration, in Iraq. They thought they could change a regime without having to rebuild the country afterward. They planned on having only 30,000 Americans in Iraq by September of 2003. It was wishful thinking to the point of fantasy, but it followed from the world view of this group and of neoconservativism, which wants to use American power but doesn't want to use either alliances or the military in post-war reconstruction.

CHADWICK: As this book goes along, you detail what has happened. This is a history in some way of the last three and a half, four years.

Mr. PACKER: That's right.

CHADWICK: It's also a commentary on what is happening. This is an angry book.

Mr. PACKER: I have a particular anger burning in me, which partly comes from the hopes that I invested in the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and in knowing both the Iraqis there, many of them, and the Americans at midlevel, soldiers, civilians, who went there to try to make this a success. And they've been betrayed, Americans and Iraqis alike, by the irresponsibility of the people who are making decisions at the top. And it was a case of negligence so extreme that I call it in my book criminal negligence. They had people's lives in their hands, and they didn't treat them with care. And I feel burned by it, and Iraqis and Americans have every right to feel burned by it. So, yeah, the book has--it's a quiet anger in the book, but it does burn and it gathers some heat as the book goes along.

CHADWICK: With all that's happened, with all that you cite as repeated failures of the Bush administration, I think I hear your voice in this book still concluding that the war was necessary.

Mr. PACKER: I wouldn't say it was necessary. It was a war of choice. We were not forced into this war. But I would insist that some good in Iraq was possible and still is possible. I've come to the conclusion that for America in the foreseeable future, this war was a disaster. It's hard to make any case that this war has been a good thing for us. For Iraqis, it's harder to be categorical. But I know enough people there. I'm in touch with them. They have not given up hope because they can't. They have to live there. Some of the Americans who were there also haven't given up hope.

It just seems a long way away from here, and it's hard for Americans at home to have any faith and confidence that our leaders know what they're doing in Iraq. But the stakes in Iraq are very high still, and our responsibility I think is still there.

CHADWICK: At the very end of this book, George Packer, you relate a conversation between Colin Powell and President Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. The secretary of State has come in to say goodbye to the president, to essentially say, `I'm leaving. This is our final conversation.' He announced his resignation sometime before. He maneuvers a couple of other people out of the room and confronts the president about what he describes as `repeated failures of the administration.'

Mr. PACKER: It's as if, in their last meeting, Colin Powell finally told him the whole truth, and one has to wonder what took him so long. But in January of 2005, he told the president, `The Pentagon is running your foreign policy. That's not a good thing. You don't understand the importance of negotiation and alliances. And your strategy in Iraq is headed for such trouble that if things don't change in the next few months, you need a new strategy and new people to implement it.' And George Bush, who's not used to being addressed this way in the Oval Office and who is famously intolerant of criticism, was signaling to Powell, you know, `I get it. Let's cut it short.' But Powell went on because it was his last chance. And there are many might-have-beens in that last encounter between those two men. And one has to feel that Powell, having lost so many of the big battles in the administration, when it was too late was finally speaking his mind to the president.

CHADWICK: George Packer, author of "The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq," thank you.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you.

BRAND: And that interview by my colleague Alex Chadwick.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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