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Newsday, tk October 2005

THE ASSASSIN'S GATE: America in Iraq, by George Packer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp.
It often happens that the reviewer of a biography ends up writing a short profile of the book's subject, while ignoring almost entirely the craft and method of the biographer. The book then becomes a pretext -- a way to get access, in effect, to someone famous and/or dead. A similar temptation exists with books about the Iraq war. The review becomes an op-ed piece. Or, perhaps, a rebuttal - since the book itself may turn out to be mostly editorial.

Three years ago, as the war was approaching with the force of an inevitability, George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, emerged as one of the most eloquent and cogent representatives of the group that became known as the liberal hawks. If you take my description to be a signal of agreement with Packer's outlook...well, eloquence and cogency are fine qualities, but they aren't everything.

To describe his new book as smart and well-written (which it is) would not be saying very much. The important thing about The Assassin's Gate is that it is based on real reporting. He went to Iraq. He wandered around and talked to people. That counts for something; in fact, it counts for a lot. The result is not a policy book, or (shudder) one of those pseudophilosophical puddings that the pro-war intelligentsia in the United States felt obliged to cook up during the months between 9/11 and "shock and awe."

Instead, Packer has written something like a biography of the war and its aftermath -- starting with its parents, the neoconservative strategists in Washington who regarded the defeat of Saddam Hussein as a necessary and overdue prologue to redefining the political culture of the Middle East.

Roughly the first hundred pages of the book are devoted to this story. Much of it has already been told, in greater depth, by James Mann's book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. But Packer's account of the war's genealogy is a bit different, in that he gives nearly equal weight to the godparents: that is, those usually called "humanitarian interventionists," people who saw the chance to put Hussein in the ashcan of history as a manifestation of the left's antifascist and egalitarian principles.

Well, we all know how well that turned out. Or do we? The bulk of "The Assassin's Gate" consists of Packer's account of what he saw in Iraq between July 2003 and January 2005; by now, he counts as one of American journalism's old "Iraq hands." He has the sense (which is sound enough) that his readers are more likely to have strong opinions about what is happening there now than any clue what the place is really like.

Ideology simplifies things, but good reporting tends to show them in all their messiness. That, at least, is what journalists prefer to think about what they do. And while their own outlook may color the process, there is something to be said for how the canons of the profession try to neutralize that -- and the good faith of those practitioners of it who do try to give you the news, rather than just rewriting press releases.

Packer visits a psychiatric hospital, a college campus, the U.S. command headquarters inside the Green Zone. He interviews clerics, politicians, American functionaries, adolescent girls, a doctor forced by the Baathists to cut the ears off prisoners, an Iraqi soldier who knew Hussein and thought he was a nice guy.

He doesn't actually talk to any insurgents, who, after all, are more likely to behead reporters than answer their questions. But he does evoke the rapid demoralization that fueled the insurgency: "Confused, frustrated Iraqis, who never before had been allowed to take any initiative, turned to the Americans, who seemed to have all the power and money," he writes; "the Americans, who didn't see themselves as occupiers, tried to force the Iraqis to work within their own institutions, but the institutions had been largely dismantled."

The most extreme moment of dismantling came when, "with the stroke of a pen," as Packer writes, the country's military was dissolved, putting "several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no job and no a country where unemployment was somewhere over 50 percent."

That was not merely idiotic. It was an act of hubris. "From the Iraqi viewpoint," one American official tells Packer, "that simple action took away the one symbol of sovereignty the Iraqi people still had. That's where we crossed the line. We stopped being liberators and became occupiers."

Snippets of the book won't convey the range of its coverage, the variety of portraiture and incident it records. Nor can it more than hint at the remarkable precision and control of the prose, which operates in a mode that might be called "impersonal first person." It is a style through which the author neither pretends to omniscience nor goes AWOL into his own navel, but, rather, carefully records both the information he has gleaned from an interview and the nuances of the scene in which the discussion has taken place.

Most of the time, the "I" behind the prose does not announce itself. But it is there. And when it does step forward -- quickly, unobtrusively -- the moment bears close examination.

There is a scene in Baghdad in which Packer encounters his friend Kenan Makiya, the emigre intellectual whose books about Hussein's regime made the strongest case for the two Iraq wars as antifascist struggles. Back in his native country, Makiya talks about (in his own words) "reshaping Iraqis perceptions of themselves in such a way as to create the basis of a tolerant civil society that is capable of adjusting to liberal democratic culture." And as he listens, Packer, who had always found his friend's thinking persuasive, grows annoyed.

"Makiya was consumed with thoughts about the past and future," Packer writes. "I wanted him to acknowledge that the present was a disaster. Phrases like 'tolerant civil society' and 'liberal democratic culture' did not inspire me in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. They sounded abstract and glib amid the daily grinding chaos of the city, and they made me angry at him and myself - for I had had my own illusions."