Postcards From the Abyss | The Nation


Postcards From the Abyss

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These centrifugal forces receive greater attention in George Packer's The Assassins' Gate, which sits bundled with Shadid's book at the top of the stack of reporters' dispatches from Iraq. Packer belongs to that subset of liberal hawks who were unconvinced by the Bush Administration's urgings that a dilapidated dictatorship posed a "grave and gathering danger" to the United States but cautiously supported the invasion on the grounds that Iraqis would be better off without Saddam and his cronies. As the euphoria at Firdaus Square dissipated, most of Packer's cohort took the easy way out, seeking refuge in self-righteous excoriation of the Bush Administration's incompetence as liberators and occupiers. Much to his credit, Packer took extended tours in Iraq to test not only that conventional wisdom but also his own assumptions. The result is a tour de force--but it is not without its own uncomfortable silences.

About the Author

Chris Toensing
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

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Like Shadid, Packer is a storyteller, and an artful one. His canvas, however, is broader, encompassing not just the inching of post-Saddam Iraq toward the abyss but also the intellectual history of humanitarian intervention, the political history of the regime change crowd's capture of Washington and a little social history of the awkward interactions between American soldiers and diplomats turned "nation builders" and their human raw material. These sections of The Assassins' Gate are fairly familiar, but they contain some of the most stinging indictments anywhere of the neoconservatives and their patrons, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. After his Iraq sojourns, Packer goes to Washington to measure the attitudes of the war party toward their grandiose adventure gone bad. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is "probably at the peak" of those having trouble sleeping at night, another former official tells him. Who else has trouble? "That's a good question," Packer's source says twice. He doesn't come up with a name.

Packer's most original reporting is elegiac in tone, and it comes from Kirkuk and Des Moines, Iowa. In Kirkuk, the contested, multiethnic city lying on the edge of the Kurdish heartland and sandwiched between two of Iraq's largest oilfields, he meets Luna Dawood. Dawood is an Assyrian Christian woman who, on orders from the deposed regime, distributed cash payments to Kurdish and Turkmen families evicted from their homes in the latest regime campaign to "Arabize" the vicinity of the oil riches. "She was," Packer writes, "a bureaucratic expediter of ethnic cleansing." In his hands, though, she is a tragic figure, a woman whose anguish at her complicity seems genuine and who quietly defied her superiors' command to burn records of the mass displacement as the 2003 war loomed, hiding them in her house, where someday they might have guided officials looking to compensate the victims of Arabization. Her story frames a lengthy, sensitive exposition of the ethnic tensions that rile today's Kirkuk--perhaps the most dangerous flashpoint in the country. Packer neither vilifies nor romanticizes the Kurdish parties, whose wads of dinars to build brick houses are today creating facts on the ground, "Kurdifying" the Kirkuk region long before any truth and reconciliation process can make use of Dawood's storehouse of documents. Again, Iraq reads as tragedy, not a morality play.

In Des Moines, on Memorial Day 2004, Packer stands at the grave of Pfc. Kurt Frosheiser, killed seven months earlier while on a mission in Baghdad. Standing next to him is the soldier's grief-stricken father, Chris, who had read some of Packer's New Yorker pieces and begun to correspond with him. Visits to Chris Frosheiser bracket a probing discussion of the domestic debate on the war, a debate oddly disconnected from the grim reality on the ground. (Every reporter who comes back from Iraq comments on how surreal this is.) During the 2004 campaign the incumbent refused to acknowledge the chaos, and the challenger offered little but a pledge to manage the chaos better. While this ambivalence is slowly receding from the public square, Packer's portrait of Chris Frosheiser is a salutary reminder of why the ambivalence has been so durable. A lifelong Democrat who voted for John Kerry "by a hair," Frosheiser cannot bring himself to pronounce upon whether the war was "worth it" or not. "He would not have chosen to give up Kurt for democracy in the Middle East," Packer explains. "Now he wants Kurt's death to be part of some historical good." Neither does he want to think of his son's death in such abstract terms, however.

So does Packer think the war was worth it? After all, he is one of the most thoughtful of the liberal hawks, and unlike the rest of them he has spent months in Iraq and Iowa staring the human subjects of "humanitarian intervention" right in the face. Frustratingly for readers in search of an answer, if not a mea culpa, he doesn't say. His October 13 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is more forthcoming, but also oblique: "Was it worth it, then? If it couldn't be done right, should it have been done at all? For Americans today, the answer has to be no. For Iraqis, and for the future of this crucial region, with which our own future is inextricably linked, it's difficult to know definitively." The problem with this philosophical dodge is obvious: To say that only time will tell if the war was worth it for Iraqis is a banality that glosses over how many Iraqis have died unnecessarily, and how many more might die in the future, before history renders its verdict. But Packer anticipates this point in the book, noting that few Iraqis he met, despite their profound disappointment with the United States and shock at what is happening to their society, regretted the overthrow of Saddam. A young woman named Aseel, reminded of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction the Bush Administration used to justify the invasion, retorts: "We are more important than missiles!" Self-evident, from both Iraqi and humanitarian perspectives. However, as Packer surely knows, humanitarian considerations were decidedly secondary in the minds of the war's architects--including Wolfowitz, whom he portrays somewhat sentimentally as the Administration's bleeding heart. For Bush and Cheney the most significant consideration was reasserting American hegemony in a volatile, oil-rich region, a motive to which Packer gives far less space than he does to the fantasies of humanitarian interventionists like Paul Berman, who had absolutely no influence on the Administration's thinking, and of Iraqi exiles like Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis and Wolfowitz ally who had not laid eyes on Iraq in decades.

Makiya, an architect and writer whose terrifying portrait of Saddam's Iraq, Republic of Fear (1989), stiffened the breastbones of liberal hawks as an earlier generation of US troops deployed to the Persian Gulf, is Packer's central and most interesting character. In the Arab world Makiya is better known for Cruelty and Silence (1994), much of which is devoted to a polemical assault upon Arab intellectuals who, he claims, failed to speak out against Saddam's regime. Although the allegation is overstated, it echoes the feeling of many Iraqis--and not just exiles--that Arab governments and even their populations overlooked Saddam's role in Iraqi suffering while verbally defending Iraq from the warplanes and embargoes of the West. There are few sharper debates on Al Jazeera these days than those between Iraqis and other Arabs about the meaning of solidarity. The offer of Arab League head Amr Moussa to broker a "national reconciliation conference," which followed the polarizing October 15 constitutional referendum, came only after vehement Iraqi criticism of what has seemed to be tacit Arab-government backing of the insurgency. Packer writes about how Aseel flummoxed her Egyptian interlocutor in an Internet chat room with the suggestion that, in his words, "Americans and Israelis seemed to care about Iraqis more than other Arabs did." "What the war gave people like her," he concludes, "is hope."

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