The conventional wisdom has room for one book at a time per subject. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest caught exactly what the prevailing mood wanted captured about the Vietnam War: the hubris of a WASPish foreign-policy establishment in its final act, overconfident and trusting of its technocratic rational models as it steered the nation into bloody quagmire.

For a brief time during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Kenneth Pollack’s hawkish The Threatening Storm held a portion of the stage. In Washington, it was the book most often seen plucked from briefcases for perusal by busy suits on the Metro—a city giving in to the case for war.

Now, with that war well into its third year, George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate has emerged as the book that most nearly shapes an emerging consensus. It’s not quite a bestseller—apparently not that many Americans take pleasure in buying books about Iraq. But among political readers, the New Yorker correspondent’s work—its title comes from the name U.S. troops have given the gate separating the American Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad—is on everyone’s lips. Packer appears as a guest on the most watched Sunday talk shows; he is praised by government officials who were close to the decision-making process as getting the complicated story more or less exactly right. And deservedly so.

Certainly The Assassins’ Gate works as vivid journalism. It is one thing to relate how Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon made no plans for post-invasion contingencies, even as it succeeded in blocking knowledgeable military and State Department officials from the postwar planning process. Or to describe how Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith—entrusted by Rumsfeld to prepare for the post-invasion—appointed his former law partner Michael Mobbs, a man with no relevant experience, to head civil administration in postwar Baghdad, and this personality—after clearing the matter with Scooter Libby —awarded Halliburton a $7 billion no-bid contract.

But it is even better to learn that Mobbs first showed up in the region “looking as if he were dressed for West Palm Beach” and, when he was unable to reach any decisions about civil administration, abandoned Baghdad to hang out in the Kurdish area with Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi exiles. Or to read that on day two of the war, Albert Cevallos, a young USAID human-rights official,was standing with some civil-affairs officers on the Iraq-Kuwait border. “Albert, what’s the plan for policing?” one of the civil-affairs officers asked. Cevallos replied, “I thought you knew the plan.” “No, we thought you knew.” “Haven’t you talked to ORHA [the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the official postwar authority]?” “No, no one talked to us.” Cevallos later related that it felt like a Laurel and Hardy routine.

Two weeks after this exchange, looting broke out, and the American occupation authorities stood by and observed passively. The estimated damage was $12 billion, and in Packer’s telling, a signal to all Iraqis that the Americans had not sent a serious force to rule Iraq.

A premise of such reporting, of course, is that the invasion could have worked if planned more carefully or, more, that Iraq could have been truly liberated by American arms. Though this perspective would be considered shortsighted by most readers of this magazine, it is a boon to Packer’s reporting: it gives empathy and breadth to his portraits of the many administrators and intellectuals who planned the war and now work in Baghdad. As a backer of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Packer had more access than an Iraq War skeptic could have gained. And his disappointed “liberal hawk” perspective may be what the country is ready to embrace as its mainstream conventional view.

It would be many weeks after the invasion before official Washington recognized that things were not going well in liberated Iraq. While administration officials were still toasting one another at Washington dinner parties and mocking Colin Powell for his tedious insistence on international coalitions, Jay Garner, Rumsfeld’s man in Baghdad for the first weeks of the occupation, came by the White House to say goodbye and to deliver a memo that Iraq was well on its way to stability. Bush, apparently joking, asked him, “You want to do Iran for the next one?”

While Packer’s reporting on the war’s subsequent course—from within and without the Green Zone—is first rate, this book’s claim to lasting importance lies in its first 60 pages, in which he explores the ideas of the men who conceived of the invasion in the first place. While Washington is now immersed in the issue of whether and how the intelligence about Saddam’s weapons programs was distorted, it is necessary to remember that the squeezing of murky intelligence data to fit a preconceived pattern was the work of men for whom the concept of the war had been marinating a long time, well before the dubious reports of Saddam’s purchase of yellowcake and plans for aluminum tubes.
It is in this section that Packer’s liberal-hawk perspective may serve him best. It undoubtedly helped cement his friendship with such pro-war writers as the leftist Paul Berman, who argued in an intense book that Islamic fundamentalism was a variant of 20th-century European fascism, and the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, author of the comprehensive anti-Saddam tract Republic of Fear. His insight about liberals who began to shed their Vietnam-era resistance to military interventionism in the mid-1990s—“the first sip of this drink called humanitarian intervention carried a special thrill”—is perhaps born in introspection.

But while the exiles and liberal hawks held some cultural influence that helped grease the path to war, they had no real power. The neoconservatives who staffed the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney’s office did, and they too seemed to treat Packer as a friendly, opening up to him in interviews to his book’s great benefit.

Packer explores the evolution of the neoconservative case for war with great care and, for the most part, empathy, taking time to analyze its diverse strands, its origins in the muddled end of the first Gulf War, judiciously separating out the absurd from the plausible, the idealistic from the frankly Likudnik. He can be dead-on funny about such sideshows as the Leo Strauss cult. “At Yale,” he writes, “these disciples—almost exclusively male—wore bow ties and joined clubs with aristocratic-sounding names and generally cultivated an air of special knowledge and ‘excellence.’”

Discussion of the neoconservative role in the run-up to war has been made a sensitive issue, the Likudnik aspect especially so. As the war has gone sour and interest in the neocons has bubbled up around the globe, the neoconservatives have devoted no small amount of ink to either denying that neoconservatism exists, to claiming that users of the word are motivated by anti-Semitism, or to burying the concept under clouds of obfuscation—as in, for instance, presenting George W. Bush as the ultimate neoconservative, a ploy that seems to have fallen out of rhetorical fashion as the president’s poll ratings have dropped.

Nonetheless, truth and history have their own claims, and there was a group of men with similar ideologies and interlocking personal and institutional ties who did much to make the war happen. It is likely that Packer’s rich, nuanced, and in several ways manifestly philo-Semitic account of these men will do lasting damage to such efforts at historical cover-up. If—as seems quite possible—The Assassins’ Gate winds up on college reading lists and goes through many paperback editions, a great many Americans will acquire a finely honed view of the neoconservative role in igniting the war, one that may be better than they could get anywhere else.

Packer is generally laudatory of Paul Wolfowitz, an idealist with a talent of charming powerful people, “a good boy, the kind on whom adults fasten their dreams.” He suggestively writes that both Bush and Wolfowitz, who were never close themselves, yearned to break free of the “stifling authority” of Bush’s father, the balance-of-power realist who stepped back from finishing the job the first time around. For Wolfowitz, “Iraq stood for different things—an unfinished war, Arab tyranny, weapons proliferation, a strategic threat to oil, American weakness, Democratic fecklessness—and regime change there became the foreign-policy jackpot.” He is less indulgent towards Douglas Feith and David Wurmser and the “Clean Break” memorandum they, along with Richard Perle and others, prepared for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu in 1996. He gives “Clean Break” the most precise analysis I’ve seen in the American press, explicating it through the lens of Wurmser’s subsequent AEI-published volume, which argued (in 1999) that America’s taking out Saddam would solve Israel’s strategic problems and leave the Palestinians essentially helpless.

Wurmser joined Douglas Feith’s Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, which collected raw data from Iraqi defectors in order to prove that Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and would give WMD to terrorists. Later he worked for John Bolton before moving on to Cheney’s office. His and Feith’s work in intelligence gathering involved taking data that had been dismissed by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department and fashioning it into bullet points and PowerPoint slides and piping it into the White House, where the Pentagon neocons had allies in Scooter Libby and Elliott Abrams. Packer concludes, “this configuration of like-minded officials dispersed on key islands across the national-security archipelago allowed the intelligence ‘product’ … to circumvent the normal interagency process, in which the unconverted … might have raised objections. It was an efficient way of working if you knew what you wanted to achieve.” As Richard Perle told Packer, it was pointless to look back at old articles in the foreign-policy journals. What mattered was who held positions of power. “If,” Perle said, “Bush had staffed his administration with a group of people selected by Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker, which might well have happened, then it could have been different. … The ideas are only important as they reside in the minds of people who were involved directly in the decision process.”

The ultimate responsibility for the war, or course, belongs to Cheney and Rumsfeld, who chose to staff the administration with neoconservative ideologues, and to George W. Bush. (A question that puzzles me is how anyone who had drafted position papers for a foreign government could receive a security clearance, much less a top foreign-policy job, but apparently this never troubled Cheney or Rumsfeld.)

The issue of how the Iraq War began will likely engage future historians as much as the beginning of World War I. It still remains, in a way, a mystery: Packer poignantly cites Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning at the State Department, as saying he will go to his grave not knowing why the United States invaded Iraq. “A decision was not made—a decision happened, and you can’t say when or how.”

In their efforts to probe the question, future historians are likely to go back to Packer’s work again and again, for it is superbly written and wonderfully judged, well sourced and speculative, a fusion of contemporary history and journalism at the highest level.

December 19, 2005 Issue