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Author Offers Fascinating Look at Our March to Iraq in `The Assassins' Gate'

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``The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq'' by George Packer; Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($26)


The threat posed by Saddam Hussein's possible weapons of mass destruction was actually a "least common denominator" reason for war. That was the case, anyway, among the Bush policy thinkers arguing fiercely about it in 2003, according to ``The Assassins' Gate,'' George Packer's fascinating history of our road to Iraq.

And it's ironic that the WMDs have loomed so large in the bitter crossfire over whether the Bush White House misled us into war. It's ironic because at the time, even President Clinton sided with the case against Saddam. Where the Bush administration clearly lied, Packer contends, was in linking Saddam with 9-11 to fight the Iraq war that President Bush came into office already seeking, thus derailing the other war, the real fight against al-Qaeda.

What's more, what actually inspired the neocons is the third, multipronged, mostly unspoken justification for invading: to topple a monstrous dictator, to inject modern democracy into the Arab world, to shift America's power connection in the Middle East away from the corrupt oil monarchies that have fostered the very Islamic terrorism we're fighting.

Yet Packer shows, it's precisely their neoconservative thinking, with its oddly conjoined roots in Leo Straussian elitism, Reaganaut optimism and a simplistic faith in freedom and free markets, that led to our miserable lack of planning. By their own beliefs, the whole purpose of the war was the post-war reshaping of Iraq, yet as State Department and Pentagon officials raised warnings about the intractable, costly lessons learned by the Clinton White House in Bosnia and Haiti, they were shut up by hard-liners Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Watching this unfold in Packer's account is suspenseful, heartbreaking and infuriating, like watching a slow-motion bus accident. Some of what The Assassins' Gate'' covers in its first half has been reported before, but Packer traces this history much more deeply, more affectingly than Bob Woodward'sPlan of Attack.'' ``The Assassins' Gate'' reads like an intellectual thriller as it shifts from emigre coffeehouses to think tanks to military bases to the homes of Iraqis themselves as the chaos plays out.

It should be noted that Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker , was a liberal hawk, meaning the neocons actually get a sympathetic hearing here, even as their follies pile up. After 9-11, Packer, like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, abandoned the Democrats' piecemeal and reactive foreign policy for the chance to project American power for a worthy, possibly world-changing cause. Americans view Iraq, he writes, as either Vietnam or as World War II, and he, with admitted doubts, embraced the second.

What he finds, of course, is that neither historic template holds up on the Arab ground at all. Which is why we are now there undermanned, underarmored and inspiring ever more terrorists. One of the brutal ironies we and the rest of the world may live with for decades is that the Bush administration came to power dismissing "nation building" and so has wound up mishandling many of the same long-term infrastructure problems in Iraq that it's now mishandling in New Orleans.

Whatever your views on the war or your knowledge of it, ``The Assassins' Gate'' is simply indispensable, the one book about it I wholeheartedly recommend.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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