The first section of George Packer's book on the Iraq war takes place in unlikely cities: Brooklyn and Cambridge. In Cambridge, Kanan...

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“The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq”
by George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
467 pp., $25

The first section of George Packer’s book on the Iraq war takes place in unlikely cities: Brooklyn and Cambridge.

In Cambridge, Kanan Makiya, a leading intellectual among Iraqi exiles, made an impassioned plea before the war for democracy, even at the point of a gun.

Paul Berman, an old lefty, was in his musty apartment in Brooklyn, calling the Iraq war an anti-fascist war fit for the grandest traditions of liberalism.

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In a sense, the sympathetic profiles of these two men, as well as an extended examination of the neo-conservative movement, represent the battle for Packer’s mind. As one of the so-called “liberal hawks,” he was drawn to alluring visions of a liberal, democratic Middle East, while repelled by anti-war sloganeering that seemed callous in the face of Saddam Hussein’s brutality.

The promise of democracy makes the ultimate result — bloody insurgency, sectarian violence — all the more bitterly disappointing for Packer, a New Yorker staff writer who’s been to Iraq several times since the war began.

With a mix of incredulity and anger in “The Assassin’s Gate,” Packer fills in the details of the Bush administration’s failure of both imagination and execution.

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George Packer, author of “The Assassin’s Gate” will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com ).

For instance, Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Packer about being on a conference call with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), to discuss gathering experts and facts about the post-war.

AEI is a place the war’s fiercest advocates call home. According to Packer’s account, DeMuth said, “Wait a minute. What’s all this planning and thinking about post-war Iraq? This is nation-building, and you said you were against that. In the campaign you said it, the president has said it. Does he know you’re doing this? Does Karl Rove know?” Karl Rove. Needless to say, at the mention of the president’s political enforcer, Rice canceled the idea for a consortium of experts.

Packer gives readers dozens of these anecdotes, but my favorite — or maybe I should say least favorite — is a scene on the Iraq-Kuwait border just after the war started when some civil-affairs officers are standing with a contractor from USAID, an American aid agency. Packer reconstructed the conversation, in which they’re talking about policing a liberated Iraq.

“Albert, what’s the plan for policing?”

“I thought you knew the plan.”

“No, we thought you knew.”

“Haven’t you talked to ORHA?” (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the Pentagon agency in charge of reconstruction in post-war Iraq).

“No, no one talked to us.”

It sounds like Laurel and Hardy, except that it led right to the looting of Iraq and the seeds of the insurgency. It stands in stark contrast, as Packer notes, to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s fat briefing books on post-World War II Germany, prepared in the years leading up to the Normandy invasion.

This book, though, is much more than an investigation of failure. It is an engrossing account of war and chaos, and it provides rich portraits of ordinary Iraqis, about whom we know so little from daily news reports.

The most compelling figure, though, is an American father. Chris Frosheiser’s son is a soldier. Like Packer, and like so many of us, he was conflicted about the war before it began. He believed it might represent the kind of strategic thinking that could fundamentally alter the Middle East, but he had doubts and fears. When his son was killed by a roadside bomb, the conflict deepened within him as he wondered if there would finally be a point to the killing, while also not wanting his son’s sacrifice to be in vain.

This is the real power of this book — its portraits of the emotionally maimed. Hopefully, we can look, empathize and honor.