"The story of the Iraq war is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world, and of the individuals who conceived and acted on them," New Yorker staff writer Packer opines in the preface to Assassin's Gate. Largely assembled from a series of articles penned in the wake of Saddam's fall, the title alludes to the gate separating the U.S.-protected Green Zone from Baghdad proper.
Packer seeks to explore U.S. involvement in Iraq through sketches of participants, both American and Iraqi, civilian and military. His chapters are both chronological and thematic. A chapter on "Fevered Minds," for example, traces think-tank analysts and policymakers involved in counseling for regime change in Iraq. "Exiles" features Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya and Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi. "Special Plans" seeks to expose Pentagon civilian policy advisors. "The Palace" features Coalition Provisional Authority aides while "Occupied Iraqis" sketches the lives of ordinary Baghdadis.
Assassin's Gate fails to elucidate, though. While the debates surrounding Iraq policy were complex, Packer's narrative covers only one side. His stories belie his contacts: while he delves into long passages about the thoughts and even the dreams of State Department officials such as Barbara Bodine, Meghan O'Sullivan, and Andrew Erdmann, he gets Pentagon office and staffs confused. Harold Rhode, for example, was never in the Office of Special Plans. Those who talked to Packer become complex individuals; he portrays those who did not—chief among them Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—as two-dimensional foils. Veracity is further undercut by Packer's willingness to allow confidants to reinvent themselves with the benefit of hindsight.
Many errors derive from the author's failure to evaluate sources. He relies, for example, on descriptions of Iraq planning provided by former Pentagon official Karen Kwiatkowski. But Kwiatkowski, who has since associated with the Lyndon LaRouche movement, never stepped foot in the office she described. Long before Packer completed his research, the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded she was a fabricator. Packer lifts other episodes from secondary accounts, themselves based on anonymous and often self-promoting sources. His failure to assess information is confirmed by an endnote acknowledging that he "benefited from" the blogs of Juan Cole and Laura Rozen, two unabashed partisans, neither of whom has been to post-Saddam Iraq nor is personally knowledgeable about the foreign policy analysts on whom they comment.Packer's inability to separate wheat from chaff transforms Assassin's Gate into an echo chamber for conspiracy theories. Rather than succeed in his goal to shed light on the human element of the Iraq enterprise, he has written a monument to the tendentiousness that continues to undercut Washington's Iraq policy.