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The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq [Hardcover]

George Packer
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 467 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux; First Edition edition (22 Sep 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374299633
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374299637
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,179,494 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Like many others, I receive my news from a variety of electronic and print sources and almost always in small portions. One of few exception is The New York Times. Another is The New Yorker magazine to which I have also subscribed for decades. I vividly recall articles written by Elizabeth Drew, for example, who brought uncommon intelligence and sensitivity to sometimes highly controversial issues in the 1973-1992 period. Today, I read with special appreciation articles written for The New Yorker by Hendrik Hertzberg and George Packer. I mention all this by way of suggesting why I was so eager to read Packer's The Assassins' Gate and then having done so, why I now hold it in such high regard. Actually, there are several reasons. First, Packer provides convincing, indeed disturbing answers to questions such as these:

1. What were the intellectual origins of the Iraq war? Who were its principal advocates? Why?

2. How do these origins explain initiatives and events which preceded and then followed the invasion and subsequent occupation by American troops?

3. What are are Packer's own eyewitness observations of the consequences?

4. Which of the Iraqi dissidents does Packer consider most significant? I was especially interested in what he has to say about Kanan Makiya.

5. What did Packer learn while traveling within Iraq, especially from conversations with Iraqis now living there who had personally observed and experienced (for better or worse) the regime of Saddam Hassein? Of special interest to me is what Packer observed (and shares) during a visit to the northern city of Kirkuk.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Dr. V. Stewart VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have a whole bookcase of books about the Iraq business and this is far and away the best - and that is saying something! I would agree with everything that the previous reviewer wrote, and so I won't repeat his detailed summary; suffice it to say that the story is alarming, the writing amazing, the breadth and the depth are awe-inspiring. If you have to read only one book on Iraq, make it this one. (All my friends got compulsory copies).
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  138 reviews
102 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Even the title carries a message 13 Dec 2005
By Mark Shanks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The title itself refers to the main gateway into Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound area from which the Coaltion Provisional Authority "governed" Iraq in the months after the invasion. As it turns out, the Assassin's Gate doesn't get it's colorful 1,001 Nights-flavored name from any historical allusion, but simply from the Alpha Company unit that was stationed there. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a more appropriately ironic name.

What gives Mr. Packer considerable credibility in writing this book is that he supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. He has no ideological ax to grind, and lays out the history and philosophy of the key players in the government who pressed for this action dispassionately. Only the "true believers" could take exception to the facts as presented here, although I think he understates the objectives and influence of the "Project for the New American Century", or PNAC, political group. To the reviewer who claims that Packer's Iraqis all seem to be negative, I can only answer that he definitely gives equal time to those who have an optimistic outlook for their country.

But even attributing the most benevolent (if naive) motivations to all concerned in the rush to war, there is no covering up the antipathy (to put it mildly) of those same players to the concept of any sort of post-war planning. And therein lies the primary thesis of the book. In fact, the war itself really isn't covered except in passing. There simply WAS no plan. Iraq would be liberated, and that was what was important. Any thought given to contingencies was considered disloyal at best, and going public with any doubt or question inevitably resulted in early retirement, usually accompanied by character assassination. And that remains the tragedy - the old saw "failing to plan is planning to fail" could not be better illustrated, but there are hundreds of thousands of lives affected by this monumental hubris and distain.

One of the most interesting (to me) sections of the book dealt with the Kurds, and specifically with those in Kirkuk. After Hussein's "de-Kurdification" efforts there, how to deal with the grievances of those Kurds forcefull displaced from ancestral homes? And what of the Arabs who were native to this area? There are bound to be generations of claims and counter-claims, regardless of what sort of government(s) rise in the next few years.

I have only a few minor requests that I think would improve the book. A map is sorely missed, even one printed on the endpapers would be preferable to NO map. And would it be asking too much for some photos, especially of those PNAC behind-the-scene operatives?

I believe this will be the standard single-volume summary of political events in the US dealing with Iraq from 9/11 through the January 2005 elections. This is defintely NOT a military history of the war, but a sad reflection on what could have been done to prevent the chaos and suffering we have visited on Iraq.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Absolute Must Read 4 Jan 2006
By David W. Southworth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
George Packer has repackaged and expanded his reporting of the Iraq War for the New Yorker magazine into this magnificent tail of lethal occurrences coming together at the crossroads of Iraq.

The first of these occurrences is the absolute incompetence of the Bush administration and the neocons leading the Iraq War policy to see beyond what they have dreamed up in their think tanks or been told by the many Iraqi exiles eager to tell them what they want to hear. This incompetence led to a failure to plan for post-war occupation and governance of Iraq, and a failure to be straight with the American people about the real costs and consequences of the Iraq war.

The second occurrence is what happened to the Iraqi people once they were liberated from the totalitarianism of the Saddam Hussein regime. After nearly four decades of his iron fisted rule, it appears that Iraqis almost didn't know how to experience their freedom. Vast voids and crevices opened in Iraqi society that were quickly filled with Saudi and Iranian backed religious parties, eager to impose their own vision of society on the majority of Iraqis.

These two points coming together in March 2003, has led to where we are today in Iraq. It now appears that the Bush administration ahs no clue how to move forward from the morass that is the situation as of the first of the year in 2006. Recent elections have brought to power those organized religious parties who are vastly opposed to American and Western ideals. The big winners of the entire exhibition appear to be the theocrats, while the losers are the majority of the Iraqi population, the prestige of the United States, the military, and our own future security.

For an explanation of how this situation came to pass I highly recommend George Packer's book.
48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars illuminating, but we are still in the dark 15 Nov 2005
By M. Driscoll - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
George Packer has written as good a book as an American foreign correspondent could have written on contemporary Iraq. But this isn't enough for me, and it shouldn't be enough for most American readers. As Packer himself admits, as the strength of the insurgency grew, "foreigners were cut off from Iraqis... [I]f you were honest about it, you had to admit that you knew less and less about the thinking of Iraqis and the circumstances of their lives."

In his vignettes, Packer captures the lives of disaffected doctors, obsequious sheikhs, drivers, bodyguards, and translators that he is lucky enough to meet, who are brave enough to speak to him, and who (often) speak English well enough to impress upon him their stories.

If Packer's journalism is one-sided, it is not in his conclusions (as some reviews have claimed), it is his sources. The Iraqis he does get through to are but a small and biased set. But when he profiles Americans in Iraq, Packer is incisive and honest. Here we see Marine captain Prior, Paul Bremer's bureaucrats, and others grappling with the enormity of the goal of a stable, democratic Iraq -- against the backdrop of crippled infrastructure and deteriorating security on which that goal depends.

My regret after reading this book is that the fog that has settled over Iraq has not been lifted, only presented in greater detail. Perhaps Packer cannot see through this fog as well as I would have hoped. But what is unsettling is that he appears to see further and clearer than our American leadership, for whom a deep understanding of Iraqis is so much more critical.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They lose faith in us by the minute 7 Sep 2006
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
My headline is a quote from the book and refers to Iraqis' attitude soon after the invasion. The level of neglect and incompetence was beyond belief and gave rise to the most amazing conspiracy theories.
Packer describes his own pre-war attitude as "ambivalently pro-war liberal", meaning he came somehow from the same direction as Tony Blair, who publicly based his support for the invasion mainly on the human rights view that the regime needed to be removed (that's at least what he said after the wmd scam was destroyed). I can respect that, although I never bought it. My main objection always has been, that I did not trust the invaders to do the job.
One of the main themes of the book is to show how the main leaders of the invasion never wanted to do more than invade, assuming or believing, on whatever basis, that things would be alright once liberation was achieved. Rumsfeld's dictum that "bad things happen" when people are free exemplifies this attitude. I assume he meant that good prevails in the end. Well, it does not seem to do so.
I wish I could feel good about this "told you so" attitude of mine. The situation is too damaging to enjoy having been right.
The book is worth reading for mainly two reasons: it gives a broader overview of the political schools of thought involved in the run up debates, in this way tracing the motives for the war. I became more clearly aware of the two different reasons to want to invade, i.e. the neocons' national missionarydom and the hawkishness of the human rights school. I think Packer describes this process very fairly, although it is obvious where his sympathies are. I also learned to be aware about the two opposing historic analogies that were used in the debate: pro war positions referred to the Munich appeasement before WWII, while anti war debaters spoke about the Tonkin deception which led to a larger engagement in Vietnam.
Second reason to read the book: it shows how the lack of planning for "phase IV", i.e. the time after the victory of the invasion, led to the downward spiral of destruction and murder that we are observing now. I find the current debates, whether this is civil war already or not yet, utterly ridiculous.
The sad thing is that this kind of book will be wasted on the true believers of the government line. Just look at the recent review here who found the book "too liberal".
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Government Bungling - Again! 26 Dec 2005
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Packer, originally an Iraq War supporter, has produced an excellent summary of how we got into Iraq ("isn't possible to be sure") and the consequences of doing so. He begins by concentrating on the group most responsible for the U.S. invading Iraq - the neocons.

Packer writes that the neocons originated in the Vietnam-era, sensing that the U.S. had gone wobbly. This feeling was followed by the fall of Saigon, the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and South American insurgencies. Elliott Abrams (Asst. Sec. of State for Latin America) added "promoting Democracy," which President Reagan adopted. Thus, "morality" replaced concern for "U.S. national interest" and others' concern for "imperial overreach."

The end of the Cold War was not time to withdraw for neocons, but to extend. New threats were seen in European allies, Chinese and North Korean communists, Arab dictators, Muslim terrorists, resurgent Russians, and weapons proliferators. American power everywhere was seen as the cure. These hardliners (including Cheney) had no use for international alliances if they got in the way of U.S. freedom to act for "benevolent global hegemony." Meanwhile, the U.S. ended up in Bosnia and Kosovo for humanitarian reasons and not in Iraq - despite it having oil, having committed mass murder, and having unconventional weapons.

Packer goes on to state that on 9/11 within minutes of fleeing his Pentagon office, Wolfowitz told aides he suspected Iraqi involvement, while that same after noon Rumsfeld wondered to his aides about taking out both Saddam and UBL. Three days later with the President and others at Camp David, Wolfowitz kept returning to Iraq as the most important target for the U.S.

Rice told a presenter about a year prior to invading Iraq not to bother with reasons not to invade Iraq - Bush had "already made up his mind." Thus, we boxed ourselves into war before knowing why - other than Bush's original outrage over Hussein trying to kill his dad. Nonetheless, Bush's advisors had a great deal of experience in prior administrations, and when 9/11 arrived, they reached for what they had always known - focusing on threats from well-armed enemy states, and answered with military power. Packer senses that if Bush II had had Bush I's advisors this would not have happened.

One of the more bizarre pre-war plans was for Chalabi to lead 6,000 Iraqi exiles trained to fight in Hungary. Only 70 showed up.

Rand, the Army War College, and others concluded postwar Iraq would require a large number of troops for an extended period, and international cooperation. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, believed prior postwar reconstructions in the 90s had bred a culture of dependency - Iraq would follow the minimalist approach of Afghanistan. Army Chief of Staff Shinseki was the only one to speak publicly (asked twice at Congressional hearings), and estimated 500,000, Days later he was refuted by Wolfowitz - without data, seemingly via theology - per Army Sec. White). Marine Gen. Zinni (Franks' predecessor) similarly had called for a 500,000 man invasion force. (Packer also notes that Franks was prohibited from getting Zinni's advice.)

In April, '02 the State Dept. saw a need to begin postwar planning, and recruited Iraqi exiles with expertise in various fields and organized them into 17 committees. Rumsfeld, however, won the bureaucratic struggle for control, and set up his own group led by Gen. Garner - and then required him to "uninvite" leaders from the State Dept.'s effort, per Cheney. Others from State were more benignly excluded by holding up their clearances. Regardless, President Bush focused entirely on the military plan during the 16 months prior to the invasion (per Woodward's book) - somehow the universal desire for freedom would solve everything after that.

Early on Rumsfeld made it clear that he didn't care about timely payment of Iraq civil servants (burden on U.S. taxpayers), and that disorder in the cities was useful leverage for obtaining other nations' troops. (Looting damage was subsequently estimated at $12 billion - about the amount supposedly to be raised by a year of Iraqi oil sales.) Garner was not sold on Chalabi, and after publicly commenting neutrality on the topic, was immediately undermined and constantly herded by the White House to put Chalabi in charge. Regardless, Garner only planned on a 90-day effort, and focused on large numbers of refugees, chemical weapons, burning oil fields, and massive civilian causalities - none of which happened. (Meanwhile, the CIA was working to prevent Chalabi's takeover, and Garner's group had only $25,000 to resurrect the Iraqi civil administration - per White House Office of Mgt. and Budget!)

It quickly became apparent that Garner's efforts were not working out, and he was replaced by Paul Bremer. Within four days of taking over he dissolved the Iraqi army, fired large numbers of Baathists from civil service (formerly only the top 1% had been excluded), and stopped the formation of an interim government. The first two actions were probably initiated by Cheney, per Packer, and eliminated a major source of Iraqi national pride and changed their view of us from liberators to occupiers.

Early on U.S. leadership deluded itself with the belief that postwar it was merely dealing with a small number of former regime loyalists. After wasting a year, it then pressed for training new Iraqi soldiers, privatized the activity and claimed 150,000 "graduates" - only to later find that only about 6,000 had received any sort of substantive training.

Shifting to the causes of the insurgency, Packer believes that that Islamic hostility to intruders was the greatest factor, helped by numerous U.S. actions that were greatly resented.

Packer concludes: "Those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability . . . When things went wrong, they found other people to blame."

Summarizing, "The Assassin's Gate" is a deeply disturbing account of American government gone very wrong.
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