Monday, 21 July 2008

The criminal negligence of the Bush administration

I've just finished reading George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, which I strongly recommend. This is not an exhaustive account of the political shenanigans that led up to the war, nor it is it a blow-by-blow narrative of the campaign: those wait to be written by political and military historians with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, Packer offers a journalist's first draft of history, a series of linked vignettes, given immediacy and authority by the fact that he was there: with his friend Kanan Makiya and other Iraqi exiles in New York and London before the war, and with soldiers, politicians, administrators and ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk, in the months after the invasion, when it was still possible for a foreign journalist to move around the country with relative ease.

Some of the quotes on the dust-jacket would have you believe this is a straightforward anti-war book. My copy includes this from Peter Watts of Time Out: 'A necessary and honest antidote to the ideological buffoonery Iraq has encouraged. Hitchens, Cohen, Moore, Jenkins et al:  read and learn'. Don't believe a word of it: the book is nothing of the kind. Rather, Packer is among those (and there are many of us) who could see the moral and strategic case for removing Saddam, were allergic to the simplistic slogans of the anti-war movement, but at the same time critical of the way the case for war was made, and of the incompetence of its execution.

It's the fact that Packer should have been a natural supporter of the war that makes his detailed critique of it particularly damning. The reader is left with an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration at the Bush administration for the sheer waste of lives, resources and opportunities that were the direct result of their incompetence. Once you've read this book, you'll find it hard to to dismiss Bush's laziness, incuriosity and lack of imagination as cute foibles. Together with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith and Rice, the president is shown to be morally culpable for a tragedy that need not have happened. At the same time, the book is full of examples of the dedication and initiative of ordinary US service personnel, shamefully let down by their leaders, and the resilience and optimism of ordinary Iraqis, despite the repeated dashing of their hopes.

Packer sums it up well:

I came to believe that 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, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.


Anonymous said...

"Swaddled in abstract ideas..."

Is Packer referring to President Bush in this paragraph ("those in positions of highest responsibility")? The president's ideology has always seemed more simplistic than abstract to me.

kellie said...

George Packer has a very interesting post today speculating on what Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's comments regarding Obama and withdrawal timetables are about. He views them in relation to Sunni fears and Maliki's ambitions, and in passing touches on the interconnectedness of the surge and Sunni shifts in alliegance.

kellie said...

I don't think I gave the direct link to the particular post last time - it's here:


Martin said...

I think Packer is referring to the neocon ideology of people like Wolfowitz and Feith (his depiction of the latter being less sympathetic than of the former). Not that he's completely hostile to their vision of democratising the Middle East - there's an implicitly critical contrast in the book with the more colonialist/communalist approach of the British - but I think Packer resents the way that ideology was untempered by experience, realism or firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground. I agree about Bush - 'ideology' is probably too grand a word for any of his political ideas.

Martin said...

My comment above was a response to NC's comment. Thanks for your comment, Kellie - I'll look up the Packer article.

Anonymous said...

"I think Packer is referring to the neocon ideology of people like Wolfowitz and Feith..."

That's what I expected. The problem with this perspective is the self-identified neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Feith were not "in positions of highest responsibility" i.e. the presidency, vice-presidency, secretary or state, secretary of defense, head of the provisional authority in Iraq, and so forth. None of these people were/are necons.

The neocons were in lesser positions. Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense and Feith was under secretary of defense for policy.

Those who go on and on about "neocon control" of the Bush admin. fail to realize the neocons were a minority in the admin. and not in positions of control.

Influence, yes. Control, no. There is an important difference.

When I am able to get Bush's critics to admit the neocons were not in positions of control and power, the next step is arguing:

"Of course they were not in the highest positions of power, but they manipulated those above them."

I hope Packer does not stoop to this level.