STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People wondering what to do next about Iraq might begin by asking what's really happened so far. And this morning we have a review of several recently published books on the war.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Author, The Assassin's Gate): You have to put all these books together to begin to get a complete picture because of course every source and subject is self-serving and needs to be read with some skepticism. But there's a consistent narrative in all these books.

INSKEEP: George Packer of the New Yorker magazine wrote his own noted book about Iraq, The Assassin's Gate. He started out supporting the war and became a critic. Packer agreed to review a selection of other books, starting with these two: Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. Packer says these books focus on the role of the U.S. military.

Mr. PACKER: The shadow of Donald Rumsfeld is cast across the story of both of those books. And really the central theme of Cobra II is how the civilians in the Pentagon really brought the uniformed military under their control in a way that ignored and discouraged expert military advice. It's also a story of military failure, the failure of the uniformed military to stand up to the civilians and give them their best advice and, if necessary, resign in the face of what some of them thought was unworkable war plan.

INSKEEP: So when you roll the tape back, it looks like people did not object that strongly.

Mr. PACKER: That's my suspicion. Donald Rumsfeld so intimidated everyone around him, chewed out four-star generals in public, humiliated his civilian aides, told Condie Rice that she wasn't in the chain of command. By the time we went to war with Iraq, there was a cowed, compliant defense establishment that whatever its innermost misgivings was ready to go to battle with him simply because he had broken their will to object or to criticize.

In Fiasco, it becomes a more crucial theme after the invasion. The focus of Fiasco was on the occupation, and there what we see is the total failure of Rumsfeld to come up with a strategy to fight the insurgency mainly because he simply didn't want to acknowledge that it existed. And in the absence of a strategy, his generals used tactics that were so counterproductive, like ringing villages in barbwire and massive sweeps of young Iraqi males that within a few months, if there was not going to be an insurgency, we had pretty much created one.

INSKEEP: George Packer, let's continue with our review of books about Iraq here. We've got a couple of books that examine the Bush administration, the civilian side, if you will, State Of Denial by Bob Woodward, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which focuses on the Green Zone. How well did administration officials seem to understand what they were getting into?

Mr. PACKER: Well, from the point of view of Washington, State of Denial confirms what previous books have already suggested. In fact, one thing you can say about all of these books is there is a coherent narrative in place, and that narrative is that the war plan and the post-war policy and the failures to understand what we were getting into originated because we had an incurious president who did not take an interest in the details.

We have a weak national security adviser, and we had two powerful poles - the vice president and the secretary of defense who over and over again went around what's called the inner agency process and got their own ideas made into policy in some ways without the knowledge of others in the administration like Secretary of State Colin Powell.

INSKEEP: State of Denial describes Vice President Cheney seemingly obsessed with finding weapons of mass destruction even after almost everybody else had come close to concluding there were none, even urging weapons inspectors to spend time looking in Lebanon for them.

Mr. PACKER: Yeah. There's a serious of amusing scenes where David Kay is in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: He's the chief inspector.

Mr. PACKER: Yes. Trying and failing to find the weapons and getting calls literally in the middle of the night from the vice president's office saying have you looked at these coordinates, and the coordinates happened to be in Lebanon. Which shows that - I think that the politics of the war, namely proving to the American people that the Bush administration was right about WMD and diffusing or even destroying criticism, drove people like Dick Cheney more than what was happening at that time in Iraq, namely an insurgency was beginning to take off.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book on the Green Zone shows how those ideological and political battles that were fought in Washington played out in Baghdad. And it reads sort of as a farce, because what one sees is utterly unqualified people -people either too young, inexperienced or chosen simply because they were cronies or ideological soul mates of someone in the administration - were put in jobs, for example, to oversee the health system of Iraq and made decisions based more on what they knew of the health system of Michigan. So there you see sort of the confusion and disconnection of Washington having very real and long-term consequences on the ground after the fall of Baghdad.

INSKEEP: What picture emerges when we bring in one more book here, The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart?

Mr. PACKER: Rory Stewart was a British foreign office official who volunteered for duty in Iraq. He ended up as the deputy - essentially the deputy governor of a southern province, and what you realize as you read his book is that all the mistakes the Americans made, all these mistakes in a sense might not have mattered. Because what Rory Stewart gets at is something almost inherent in the situation, which is an occupying power that's ignorant, that's out of place, that is more and more unwanted. And an Iraqi society that is so damaged by Saddam Hussein, and so driven by tribalism and by a very conservative brand of Islam, that these two may never meet.

In a sense, it leaves you with more despair than the scathing accounts from Washington and Baghdad because it leaves you thinking: Is nation building possible? Is it a good idea to try? Should we really be bringing new ideas, or should we simply try to work with what's already there namely, tribalism and deep religious faith?

I don't know that we'll ever know whether this could have been a success, partly because so much was rigged from the outset by the follies of the administration, that in a way we never gave the Rory Stewart's and his Iraqi counterparts a chance to make it succeed.

INSKEEP: George Packer is author of The Assassin's Gate. The books we've reviewed here are Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Cobra II, The Prince of the Marshes, Fiasco, and State of Denial. Thanks very much.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can read excerpts from these books and hear from their authors at npr.org. The link is on the homepage. The headline is A Shelf Full of Books.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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