A Shelf Full of Books Chronicle Iraq Policy, StrategyA slew of recently released books examine U.S. policy and military strategy behind the Iraq war. George Packer, author of 2005's highly acclaimed The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, reviews some of the latest titles.
The Assassins' Gate author George Packer reviews new books on Iraq.
A slew of recently released books examine U.S. policy and military strategy behind the Iraq war. Steve Inskeep discusses them with George Packer, author of 2005's highly acclaimed The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq.
The books are Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor; Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq by Rory Stewart; Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks; and State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward.
Read Packer's take on these titles:
The central theme of Cobra II is how the civilians in the Pentagon really brought the uniform military under their control in a way that ignored and discouraged expert military advice. It's also the 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 an unworkable war plan.
Donald Rumsfeld so intimidated everyone around him, chewed out four-star generals in public, humiliated his civilians aides, told [Secretary of State Condoleezza] 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 [into] 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 is 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 barbed wire 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.
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 that there is a coherent narrative in place. And that narrative is that the war plan and the postwar 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 had 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 interagency 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.
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 know of the health system of Michigan. So there you see... the confusion and disconnection of Washington having very real and long-term consequences on the ground after the fall of Baghdad.
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 [who was a top British foreign service official in southern Iraq] gets at is something also 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's 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 Stewarts and his Iraqi counterparts a chance to make it succeed.