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Assassinating the truth about the Iraq war

"The story of the Iraq war is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world, and of the individuals who conceived and acted on them." This is the view of George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, in the preface to his much publicized recent book "The Assassins' Gate," an account of the planning and personalities involved in the Iraq war.

Packer seeks to explore U.S. involvement in Iraq through encounters with its participants, American and Iraqi, civilian and military. He is at his best providing character sketches of individuals involved in postwar Iraq. In a chapter entitled "The Palace," for example, he provides snippets of conversations interspersed with description to give a sense of atmosphere so often lacking in mundane newspaper accounts.

"The Captain" follows the experiences of Captain John Prior, a mid-ranking officer who fought his way north from Kuwait, spent several weeks in central Iraq, before heading to Baghdad and the province of Al-Anbar. In his log books, Prior emphasized the importance of rebuilding infrastructure. "If these people have electricity, water, food, the basics of life, they're less likely to attack," he wrote.

"Occupied Iraqis" introduces readers to the experiences of a young, female computer programmer at the University of Baghdad; a forensic specialist at the Baghdad morgue; an aide to young Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr; and a pseudonymous Kurdish translator. While well written, Packer's sketches read as random encounters by a journalist who parachuted in and out of Iraq. Unlike freelance writer Steven Vincent, murdered in Basra last August, Packer never invested the time in Iraq to expose and explore the layers of complexity in the society. Not surprisingly, Vincent's book "In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq" is a richer, more honest account.

What undercuts "The Assassins' Gate" more is Packer's tendency - like that of many instant experts and political writers - to treat Iraq as a template upon which to act out agendas that have more to do with Washington than Iraq. Packer covers only one side of the complex debates surrounding Iraq policy. His stories belie his contacts: While he delves into long passages about the thoughts and even the dreams of State Department officials like Barbara Bodine, Meghan O'Sullivan, and Andrew Erdmann, he gets Pentagon offices and staffs confused. Harold Rhode, for example, was never in the Office of Special Plans, something which could have been confirmed with a single telephone call to Pentagon directory assistance. He gets other facts wrong: He lists me as a participant in several meetings, none of which I attended.

Many errors derive from Packer's failure to evaluate his sources, and his lack of footnotes obfuscates his sourcing. To describe the planning before the war, he appears to rely on descriptions provided by Karen Kwiatkowski, a former Pentagon official who did not actually participate in Iraq planning. Long before Packer completed his research, the bipartisan U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded she was a fabricator.

Packer mimics investigative reporter Bob Woodward's style. Those who talked to Packer become complex individuals; those who did not - chief among them Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - become two-dimensional foils. There are also glaring omissions. Packer ignores the Iraq Reconstruction and Development Council, a group of more than 100 Iraqi-American and Iraqi-European technicians who, against the efforts of Bodine and Thomas Warrick of the Future of Iraq project, returned to their homeland to help guide American diplomats who did not know the language nor understand Iraqi culture. While Packer interviewed senior diplomats in their Baghdad headquarters, these returnees spent their days traveling around Iraq without security or even their own vehicles. A few paid with their lives. Packer's failure to mention this important component of reconstruction planning and implementation is inexcusable, and reflects the polite but condescending attitude about the Iraqis' own contribution too common among diplomats and Western journalists both.

Good reporters are entitled to trust their sources, but they should also verify their accounts. Packer has not. He allows his sources to revise their actions and lie to him about their roles. He allows Warrick, for example, to repeat the old canard that politics were behind an interagency decision to not deploy him immediately to Baghdad after the end of the first phase of the war. Warrick was well qualified. He had helped organize and moderate the Future of Iraq project which brought together scores of Iraqis to discuss everything from democratic governance to rehabilitation of the electricity grid. The problem was what Warrick omitted: his behavior. He liked to brag that his rolodex was "the future Iraqi government" and to threaten Iraqis to either change their positions or he would "remove them from his rolodex." Many Iraqis complained. Ultimately, the State Department held him back in response to professional misconduct. He compounded this with subsequent leaks.

Packer also fails to contrast his sources' statements with empirical data belying their statements. He is clearly sympathetic to Bodine's opposition to any purge of senior Baath Party officials from Iraqi ministries. But, subsequent data showed a correlation between re-Baathification and terrorist violence.

Despite their problems, many of Packer's interviews are insightful, though perhaps not in the ways intended. He interviewed State Department official Meghan O'Sullivan, a protégé of State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass, several times, describing everything from her toe-polish to her fears and regrets. Most telling, though, is what he shows about the ambition guiding the decision of many to play a part in Iraq, even if they did not share President George W. Bush's policy goals. Prior to the war, O'Sullivan had advocated loosening sanctions on the Iraqi regime and opposed the use of military means to enforce them. She confided in Packer how she had given up defending the administration's policies at conferences in Europe, and simply wanted to move on to a new chapter - to be where the action was.

Packer describes how, despite second-guessing her own decision to go to Iraq, she thrived. She ingratiated herself first, to senior British diplomat John Sawyers, then to senior U.S. adviser Dan Senor, before coming to the notice of coalition administrator Paul Bremer and Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Blackwill, whose White House position she now occupies. Fair enough: Washington is a city where ambition trumps principle, but for many Iraqis ignored and even condemned by Packer, life-and-death issues like freedom, liberty and democracy were motivating factors.

Packer lifts other episodes from secondary accounts, themselves based on anonymous and self-promoting sources. His treatment of the Future of Iraq project is dishonest. Portrayed as a postwar planning document cavalierly cast aside by the Pentagon, he ignores the role of daily interagency meetings at the National Security Council that brought together the State Department, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency. Nor can he explain how his Pentagon foils sidetracked the study when his own interlocutors and their superior - Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker - were placed in exclusive charge of governance.

This does not exculpate the Pentagon. Planners divide military and postwar planning into different phases. Phase III, for example, is active military operations; phase IV covers post-conflict reconstruction. There were ample plans for both, but military officials did not make the call as to when active military operations ended and postwar reconstruction could begin. It was into this vacuum of responsibility that the looting of Baghdad occurred. It is the job of the defense secretary to clarify such issues; Donald Rumsfeld abdicated his responsibility in this regard.

Another post-liberation issue ignored by Packer was the cancer of corruption, which afflicted Iraqis and Americans both and was the subject of much discussion outside the walls of the Green Zone.

Packer's failure to assess information is belied by an endnote in which he acknowledges "benefit[ing] from" the blogs of Juan Cole and Laura Rozen. Both are unabashed partisans when it comes to Iraq, and sloppy commentators: Rozen is prone to fabrication and Cole to conspiracy. Neither has been to Iraq nor is acquainted with the figures about whom they comment. Packer's reliance on both bloggers is bizarre and demonstrates questionable judgment.

An inability to separate wheat from chaff transforms "The Assassins' Gate" into an echo chamber for conspiracy theories. Packer bases his treatment of the Office of Special Plans, the Pentagon policy shop to which I belonged, on secondary sources cherry-picked from Rozen and Cole's blogs, who themselves drew their stories from Bob Dreyfuss of The American Prospect. Dreyfuss long served as Middle East columnist for a magazine belonging to Lyndon LaRouche, a discredited American conspiracy theorist and convicted felon.

Packer wrote "The Assassins' Gate" to elucidate the Iraq war. He succeeded, but unintentionally: in trying to illustrate the human element of the Iraqi enterprise, his book instead becomes a monument to the tendentiousness undercutting U.S. Iraq policy. While his descriptions are rich and his character portraits compelling, style trumps substance and politics supplant honesty. Those critical of U.S. intervention have already seized upon Packer's narrative, but, ultimately, historians will dismiss it as venal. It may reflect current progressive sentiment, but it will not survive the test of time.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of The Middle East Quarterly.