Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ex-hawk no bird-brain as he changes mind on Iraq War


Copyright 2005 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved

THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (California)

December 4, 2005 Sunday
FINAL Edition

SECTION: SUNDAY REVIEW; Pg. M6

LENGTH: 1859 words

HEADLINE: An author's confession -- he got the war
wrong;
George Packer supported Iraq invasion, but now fears
spiraling civil conflict

BYLINE: Steven Winn, Chronicle Staff Writer

BODY:

In "The Assassins' Gate" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 467
pages; $26), George Packer offers a densely layered
account of the causes, conduct and potential outcomes
of the Iraq war. The book grew out of reporting the
author did for the New Yorker, where he works as a
staff writer. Packer ranges widely, from the
resurgence of neoconservatism in Washington, D.C., to
the ravaged streets of Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk, to
the closely observed lives of Iraqi citizens and
exiles and American soldiers. Subtly but decisively,
"The Assassins' Gate" also tracks the growing dismay
of this onetime supporter of the war. Packer's outlook
on the prospects for Iraq has only grown darker since
he completed the book.

A Palo Alto native and graduate of Gunn High School,
Packer was back in his hometown on a recent book tour.
The bombings in Amman, Jordan, were fresh in his mind
at the start of a conversation at his mother's
apartment. .

Q: Were the bombings a surprise to you?

A: Unfortunately not. In a Pew opinion poll (Pew
Global Attitudes Project, July 14) on Americans and al
Qaeda, Bin Laden was more popular in Jordan than in
any country in the world. Over 50 percent of
Jordanians support him and the tactic of suicidal
terrorism.

Q: And yet it's seen as this relatively safe haven in
the Middle East.

A: That's what people thought about Saudi Arabia.
Jordan is a classic case of the pro-Western,
U.S.-friendly country with this huge disconnect
between the government and the people at the popular
level. I worry a lot about Jordan. Nothing really
surprises me anymore.

Q: Would you say that about Iraq?

A: The single most doubtful line in the book, and one
that I have quoted back to me all the time, is: "The
Iraq war was always winnable. It still is." I wrote
that in April of this year. We were coming off the
success of the January elections. The violence had
subsided quite a bit. It seemed to me that Iraq was
becoming a country in which the majority of people
wanted to live together under a representative
government.

In the six or seven months since then, it has really
moved toward civil war. And the election may very well
have had a role in it, because the Sunnis locked
themselves out and that became a self-fulfilling act.
By now, I'm quite grim, and I would not have written
that line in the present tense. The armed militias are
running the show. The young and the dispossessed and
the angry and the religious have become the wave of
the future. They've been released by the invasion to
impose their own vision of Iraq on the country,
usually at the point of a gun. It is no longer mostly
about an anti-occupation insurgency. That is the
short-term battle and in a way the cover and the
pretext for the power struggle among Iraq's major
groups.

Q: In your chapter on the divisions between the Kurds
and the Arabs in Kirkuk, you talk about a "historical
neurosis" in Iraq. How deeply did we, the United
States, misapprehend what we were getting into?

A: We had no idea. There were warnings from experts
that Iraq is a more a notional than a real country,
and that it was bound to divide once the lid of
totalitarianism was lifted. But the people who
mattered in the Bush administration brushed all those
warnings aside, often borrowing the language of the
left: "You're saying Arabs can't rule themselves.
You're saying democracy can't thrive in a Muslim
country. What kind of talk is that?" In their
ideological rigidity they ignored very helpful advice
by people who were not their enemies. So instead of
getting the liberal democratic Iraq of their dreams
they have a Huntingtonian, clash-of-civilizations
nightmare.

Q: It's become a perverse truism that if we went in to
Iraq to fight a war on terrorism, we wound up
fomenting terrorism.

A: That's one of the many ironies of this war. The
argument about terrorism and Iraq was not the argument
the administration ever successfully made. I found
that on the face of it, it was almost impossible to
believe. Why would Saddam, this master of control
through violence, put the means of violence in the
hands of people he could not control, who in some way
were his enemies? The administration sold the public
this idea that we were going to end the connection
between Iraq and terrorism, which was not real at the
time, but now turns out to be real, because of their
own actions. ...

The bigger strategic argument had to do with the
Middle East as the center of this global jihad
movement. The thinking was that if we get rid of
secular totalitarianism and create a democratic form
of rule, it will begin to take care of the deep causes
of religious terrorism. It was not an argument the
Americans were going to sign on to and go to war for.
But that was, I think, the real argument, and one that
we never really heard.

Q: You write in "The Assassins' Gate" that the war was
not inevitable. But the return of Reaganite
neoconservatives to power certainly set the stage. Did
Sept. 11 make this script fated to be?

A: Without Sept. 11 there would have been no Iraq war.
I don't think that Bush, to the extent that he gave
any thought to world affairs, was thinking like a
neoconservative before then. Sept. 11 made him one.
And then there were all the people around waiting to
seize the moment.

Q: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is described
in your book as the person in the administration
perhaps least interested in the future of Iraq. Did he
and others really believe this was going to be a
six-month operation, followed by a domino progress of
democracy across the Middle East?

A: It was magical thinking on their part. In the weeks
following the fall of the statue in Baghdad, every
step they took was geared toward a quick departure
with all but about 30,000 troops left behind. That
shows they had no strategic idea whatsoever of what
was going on. That is the belligerence that I hold
them most accountable for, and that history, I think,
will as well.

They took the domestic political battle over the war
more seriously than they took the war itself --
pinning the Democrats in a defensive position,
bringing the American public over to their side,
making sure that at every turn they polarized the
debate rather than uniting the country, discrediting
their critics such as Joseph Wilson and trying to win
the propaganda war over what was happening in Iraq and
whether it was going well or badly. They thought if
they could win that, Iraq would take care of itself.
Over and over again, while their backs were turned and
they were focused on these things, Iraq was slipping
out of their control. It's really staggering to say
it, but Bush rolled the dice in the biggest war of any
president in my lifetime and he didn't take it
seriously.

Q: You were "just barely" pro-war when it started.

A: There were compelling arguments -- the nature of
Saddam's regime; our obligations to the Iraqis because
we left him there (after the first Gulf War) and
imposed sanctions, which were destroying the country;
his serial aggressions in the region; his manifest
desire to arm himself, whether or not he had done it;
and the fact that sooner or later Iraq would implode
or explode. All of that to me, and most especially the
human rights argument, weighed pretty heavily.
Obviously there were very good reasons on the other
side, notably the regime in this country and my grave
misgivings about their ability to conduct the war. I
can't say that it was a rational deduction. It was
just hope winning out, by a whisker, over fear.

Q: Had you bought Secretary of State Colin Powell's
speech at the United Nations?

A: No. WMD never persuaded me. I just felt they were
protesting too much. All I knew was you don't go to
war on evidence that really seems like it could go
either way and with inspectors on the ground doing the
job of finding out whether or not it was true.

Q: Have we gotten overly fixated on the bad or
falsified intelligence?

A: You mention the historical neurosis among the
Iraqis. I think there's a historical neurosis in this
country that's condemning us to relive the prewar
debates over and over again because they were never
thrashed out in the sunlight. As long as the country
remains so divided and suspicious, we're not going to
get out of it in a good way.

Q: Do you see a possible good way out? Given the
erosion of confidence in the war, what is the American
public going to accept?

A: I think less and less. I think this is a
consequence of the administration's never leveling
with the public about what the war was and is about.
Eventually, as everyone learned in the '60s, the
credibility gap undermines its own authors. I think
next year we will see a strong push in the Republican
Party to define an exit strategy before the midterm
elections. I think Democrats will watch and mostly
allow the Republicans to be responsible for getting
out of the mess they got into.

It would take a very brave politician to say we have a
commitment to Iraq, that we have a stake in it and
that to leave is not going to solve the problems and
may well make them worse. I would caution anyone who
thinks the solution is to get out to realize that Iraq
will be our problem, whether we're there or not, for
years to come. It will not be Vietnam; it will not let
us go home and lick our wounds.

I worry that Iraq has so exhausted the country and
disillusioned us about foreign engagement that we're
going to pull back to a kind of quasi-isolationism. We
will care only about our strict vital interests, as
the "realists" say, before we act, whether in armed
action or not. I think what liberals need to do now is
argue very strongly for the U.S. to remain engaged in
a responsible internationalist way around the world.

Q: How does that play out in Iraq?

A: If we're not there, I think Iraq will descend into
a spiral of sectarian violence that will pull in the
countries on its borders and will quite likely split
up into armed fiefdoms. The Sunni area would truly be
the next Afghanistan for international terror. That's
our problem. What I would like is a serious national
conversation about all this.

Q: Can you envision that happening in the current
political climate?

A: Possibly. Possibly. The fact that (Sen.) John
McCain is conducting a very public fight with the
administration over the issue of torture shows that
there are Republicans who are not prepared to go down
with the ship. Until now their self-interest has been
driven by supporting the administration.

Q: As we saw McCain do during the 2004 campaign.

A: When he accepted all those hugs from Bush, who had
tried to destroy his reputation in 2000. That same
self-interest is going to drive Republicans to start
distancing themselves from the war. Someone like
Richard Lugar (chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee), a reasonable and responsible
man, with good relations among Democrats like Joe
Biden and Barack Obama, may well decide to hell with
it -- we need to act like senators here. That could be
the start of a real discussion and some serious
analysis. If, on the other hand, we're stuck with
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice for the next three
years, as the only arbiters of what America does in
Iraq, then I expect the worst.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO
George Packer's view of the Iraq war has grown
considerably darker since he wrote The Assassins'
Gate.

LOAD-DATE: December 4, 2005


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